I arrive at St. Mary’s Food Bank in West Phoenix at 7:45 am to volunteer for the day. My interest in the organization comes from, of all places, a billboard I notice along the highway: “1 in 4 Americans Experience Hunger.” It surprises me that nearly 25% of our population cannot always put food on their table. In my own life, although I have lived through lean times, I am hard pressed to recall missing a meal because there was not food to be had.
I enter the food bank through a side volunteer door where I am greeted by Susan, the volunteer coordinator.
“You here to volunteer,” she asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
“You need to log hours?”
“For the courts?”
“No,” I say and wonder what kind of people I’ll meet today.
“Fill this out.” She hands me a two page volunteer application, which I complete and return.
“Sign in here.” She points to a ‘Benevolent Volunteer’ list. “We’re really glad to have you today.”
I walk over to an area with a pot of coffee and pour myself a cup, fumbling with the individual half-and-half containers. It takes five of them to make the coffee palatable. “Where’d you get that?” a woman asks. She can’t be more than five-feet-two and ninety pounds. She is dressed in a white, frilly tank top and extraordinarily tight bluejeans, baby-blue. “Over there,” I point in the direction of coffee. “Thank God,” she says and turns to walk the other way. I notice her cell phone, a pack of cigarettes, lighter and wallet all stuffed in her back pocket. I immediately like her.
A few moments pass. Ms. Bluejeans, I and a ragtag group of volunteers are led into an adjoining room, which resembles a small Costco. Shopping carts of different shapes, sizes and colors line one wall. Big box shelves push palates of food and other household items up to the ceiling. There are ten or so workers busy sorting, prepping, and bagging food in several stations around the floor. “Grab a cart, everyone, fill it, and follow us outside to the clients.”
I select the best cart from the bunch. She’s abused, been left out in the rain, has no more plastic on the handle-push part, and squeaks as she goes. It’s odd to feel this level of camaraderie with a metal basket, but I do. I hope Shirley – the name I’ve given my shopping cart – and I get to spend some time together. “Nice cart,” comments one of the other volunteers.
The line of beat up baskets pushes forward and I collect contents from each station:
Station 1: two bags of oranges and two one-liter bottles of soda from a company I’ve never seen.
Station 2: A grocery bag with four heads of cabbage, four tomatoes, two bunches of asparagus, two heads of lettuce, three bunches of cilantro.
Station 3: four cantaloupes and one watermelon.
Station 4: A grocery bag containing two bags of pork rinds, one box of Coscto croissants, three loaves of bread and two snack size cakes from a Latin American brand I don’t recognize.
Station 5: one whole frozen chicken, one bag of hotdogs and a 12-pack box of Chobani yogurt.
Station 6: Bag containing two cans of tomatoes, one can of corn, a can of green beans, one bag of rice, and one bag of dry kidney beans.
There are special boxes available for the elderly and families with young children, but only certain people handle those items.
I take quick stock of the food in the cart. It’s stuff I would eat, and just looking it over makes me hungry . . . especially the snack cakes which are chocolate covered rolls. The packaging is in Spanish, so I can’t read what it is, but the picture looks like something I would enjoy. “How often can people get this food,” I ask one of the employees. “Once a month,” he replies. “One basket per address, per month.”
Pushing through the grocery store-style doors with my cart, I enter the main room, which feels like a social service agency. The linoleum is well used, and 100 chairs face a bank of old school computer monitors hosted by social workers. A line has formed outside. “Thank you for being here,” the Director of Client Services says. “We’re about to open for business.”
Monday through Friday, St. Mary’s, the first food bank in the country, hands out 750 “Emergency Food Baskets” (EFBs), each day. Doing some quick math, I determine that they distribute approx. 3,750 EFBs per week, and 15,000 per month. And this is just one location. St. Mary’s has over 900 facilities throughout Arizona. Most clients are low income or poor who struggle to put enough food on the table.
The doors open and people stream in. I wait by a man who takes a piece of paper given by the social workers and pairs people with carts. “Help them out to their car – or whatever – but bring back the cart – they will try to take them,” the man says as he points at my cart, Shirley, then at a woman. I escort her out to her car in the parking lot. She barely smiles, but says “thank you” as I help her place groceries into the trunk of her beat up GMC. I return to the warehouse with an empty Shirley and begin the process all over again.
This time around the person in front of me is called out for some sort of special delivery. It means I have to – gasp – give up Shirley and take a different, even more abused, basket. I try to get the person behind me to jump in front so I do have to give up MY cart, but he refuses and one of the workers frowns at my futile attempt to keep my cherished delivery vehicle. I begrudgingly push the new cart with food I haven’t selected to the front of the line. The paper-taking man continues his conversation where he left off. “We once had to chase a gal five blocks to get our cart back.”
Over the next few hours I make the trip around warehouse, main room, parking lot and back again. In these journeys I meet the people who have come for help. One woman speaks almost no English. She has one baby on her back and a toddler next to her. Unlike many of the others, she smiles. Her children appear happy, curious and well behaved. She walks to the facility and brings a metal push basket, which is slightly too small to take all the groceries. We fit most of them in precariously. “Gracias!” she says as she waves goodbye.
An African-American woman is next. When I ask her how she is doing, she responds “I’m hanging in there. I have one child who is bipolar and another that is paranoid schizophrenic. It’s a lot of work to keep up with them.” “I would guess so,” I reply. I shy away from asking too many questions out of respect, but I am curious.
By lunch time my stomach is grumbling loudly. I’ve watched all this food and snack cakes go out the door. I say goodbye to Susan and the other volunteers, then climb into my car and head to a restaurant to eat a meal. I am blessed to to choose what I eat today: Vietnamese Pho with bar-b-que summer rolls.