Perspectives on Volunteering at Food Hampers

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In a recent post I discussed volunteering as a “practice of solidarity.” Our communities are increasingly unequal, and so, I think, are our life experiences. This is bad. If we are going to live together, be responsible for, and care about each other, we should have some basic understandings about each other.

Volunteering at food hampers means sharing work with folks different than you. And while volunteering is no magic bullet, at its best it is unsettling and perspective broadening work.

Dennis is a farmer from the area, who’s been volunteering here about five years. He does a bit of everything around our program, including packing hampers for our patrons. (To pack a hamper you take a shopping list of sorts, with preferred items checked off by the patron, and do a loop around our warehouse, part of which is arranged like a grocery store. The hamper moves from volunteer to patron at “the window,” where we have a few last food items to share.)

Some time ago Dennis packed a hamper for an average looking middle aged guy who had not checked off vegetables on our food slip.

“I know some people don’t like vegetables, or they miss it, or forget to check it off, so I didn’t think much of it at the time.”

When he got to the window, he asked the guy about vegetables, and shared with him that that particular day we had a lot of good fresh produce: locally grown carrots, some broccoli, celery. Most of it was organic, he said to the man. The patron’s response surprised Dennis.

“I didn’t forget to check it off. I like that stuff, but I don’t want to get used to liking it. I can’t afford it the rest of the time.”

He eventually did take a bit of produce from the window, though not the best stuff, says Dennis.

“What do you say to that? It really told me about how poverty affects your choices. Everyone tells you how to eat, but when people don’t have money, even when they know what they should be eating they don’t have the choice.”

I like to think that the good food we provide is a treat, a fresh or novel complement to otherwise meticulously planned fixed-income food budgets. I hope that in some instances I’m right, but then I’ve never been in a situation where circumstances made it rational to shrink my expectations to exclude fresh food.

The above story is an especially clear example of worlds colliding and perspectives shifting through work here at Food Hampers. In 2014 we had about 150 regular volunteers. One in three of our volunteers was also a program patron in 2014. To put that last point a bit differently, one third of our volunteers came here first to get food assistance. I don’t know if this is surprising figure to you, but recent data on food insecurity in our community, and Canada, is pretty clear: a lot of people experienced food insecurity in 2014; and we only ever see the tip of an indeterminably large iceberg, because “less than one-quarter of food- insecure households make use of food banks.”

Off the top of my head, I can think of volunteers at our program who grew up in Kitchener, Waterloo, Uganda, Cambridge, Serbia, Germany, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nova Scotia, Elmira, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Saskatchewan, Guyana, Columbia, England, Brazil, India, China, and the Philippines. Some of our volunteers work full time, some work part time, and many don’t work. Some have lots of formal education, some have less.

So that is my evidence: many volunteers, doing a great deal of work, from many places and many tax brackets, speaking many languages. Together they make this place work. This is cliche and it is true.

All together, our volunteers gave us about 11,500 hours of their time, or, on average, about 80 hours each.  One volunteer was here close to 800 hours in 2014, another over 300, and another dozen over or around 200 hours last year.  Those volunteer hours translate to roughly five and three quarters full time staff, graphically represented below:

vol labour

Now, we are often told that time is money. This is not strictly speaking true (what even is time, man??), and is a silly and dangerous way to think and talk about ourselves and the world. Nonetheless, it captures something important about our volunteers, who live in this competitive, careerist world, who could be doing something else, but who are here.

“Volunteering” is too abstract a word for the point I want to make. Instead of work or school or reading or walking or traveling or sleeping or making lunch (for their kids) or grocery shopping or tuning their guitar or doing the dishes or laundry or watching a movie, our volunteers are here, mopping or sweeping or stacking or folding or taping or packing or sorting or bagging or building a relationship or cutting paper or washing bins or translating Serbian or singing happy birthday or looking for cat food or looking for diapers or looking for olive oil or baby wipes or birthday cakes or gluten free pasta.

In closing, I’m reminded of one more cliché, this one from my grandma: “many hands make light work.” Again, this is true, but it fails to capture what else happens through sharing work. Together we work to help folks in our community, and through this work we are challenged, and change. This is one of the gifts our volunteers share with us, their many hands lightening our work and brightening our lives.

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3 Responses to “Perspectives on Volunteering at Food Hampers”

  1. Hunger Count 2015: A Local Preview | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] we were able to share something with Cody and Raul, with help from volunteers, a generous community and a lot of planning and effort, but ultimately, they left our […]

  2. Shut Up and Take My Money, part two! (Or, why cash transfers aren’t a silver bullet for food banks) | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] Elsewhere I have discussed the role of volunteers at our program. Last year about 150 volunteers gave us work that was roughly equal to another six full time staff positions. […]

  3. Difference and Repetition at Food Hampers | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] to do and the dedication that they put into that work. They make the program function every day. Without them, the program would have to hire many more staff members. Luke and I both agreed that this program […]

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