Last night I arrived back home from a whirlwind trip to Tampa. I was literally there for 24 hours. My plane arrived Thursday night around 5:00 PM and I left Tampa around 5:00 PM last night.
I was down in Tampa as part of ConAgra Food’s Child Hunger Ends Here campaign. I was there to meet with people from Feeding America and to get a first hand look at a mobile food bank as well as the Feeding America Tampa Bay headquarters/warehouse. I’ll write about my experience at the warehouse, as well as meeting the band Little Big Town, in another post.
Bright and early Friday morning myself, Piera Jolly (Jolly Mom) and representatives from ConAgra Foods, Feeding America and Fleishman-Hillard (PR firm) headed out to a nearby church to volunteer at a mobile food bank and to get a first hand experience about what it’s like to help feed “food insecure” families. I have written about food insecurity in the past, but in case you are not familiar with that term, food insecure means that a family does not have sufficient, safe and nutritious food on a regular basis. A food insecure family might only have enough food for one meal per day, or perhaps the ability to only eat every other day. There are varying degrees of food insecurity. Essentially anyone who does not have at least 2-3 healthy and nutritious meals on a daily basis could be considered food insecure. If you have the financial means and access to healthy foods but opt not to eat them that does not make you food insecure.
When I heard we were going to a mobile food bank I pictured being in a large truck or bus and driving around out boxes of food. Similar to the ice cream man but with boxes of foods, not ice cream. A mobile food bank is where people drive up in their cars and boxes of foods are place in their cars by volunteers. I have never heard of anything like this before. When I think about food banks I picture a facility where people want in and are handed food.
Years ago when my youngest was still an infant (he’s 13 now) there were a few months where I had to visit our local food bank. It’s not something I’m proud of, and it’s not something that I like to talk about. Thankfully it was just for a few months. I was a stay at home mom, my husband was not making much money, and my son was born premature and needed a lot of expensive things like a special formula, multiple doctor’s visits, and therapy (occupational and physical). We just had a rough few months.
Our local food bank requires that you fill out forms to make sure you are eligible. Once approved you are handed a box of food. You can’t pick or choose what you want, but that is OK. It was food for my family. That is all I cared about.
Once you have experienced something like that you will never, ever take something as simple and basic as food for granted ever again.
When we arrived at the church where the mobile food bank was located, there were A LOT of cars there. It looked like a crowded parking lot but when you looked closer you saw that the cars were occupied with people. These were the people waiting to get food for their families.
The very first thing I noticed once we let the people in charge know we were there to help out was how incredibly friendly everyone was. They were all very sweet and eager to have us there to help them out. Some of them were downright hysterical and were a lot of fun to work with.
Many of the volunteers were also there to get food for their families. I found that interesting that they would volunteer their time to help others get food for their families when they need the food for their families too.
As soon as the truck arrived from Feeding America we had a lot of work to do. While the men set up the tables with huge metal rollers (making it easier to move the boxes) the women set up the tents. The tents were a must have since they provided extra shade. Standing out in the hot sun doing a lot of physical work is not a good idea. So the tents were in place for health and safety reasons. After all, we didn’t want anyone to pass out from heat stroke.
There was A LOT of food delivered to the site. I believe there were 11 full pallets. The pallets were filled with “staples” like vegetables, rice, juice, meat, cereal and fruits. One of the vegetables available for the boxes was Yuca. I have never heard of this vegetable before.
While there was a lot of food it certainly wasn’t enough. There were over 300+ families there for a food box pick up. Each family received one box of food. There are still so many more families, and children, in our own “backyard” in need of food. One in five children come from a food insecure family – ONE IN FIVE!!! Think about five children that you know. One of them is from a food insecure family. You might not even be able to tell which child because it’s not something that people go around telling everyone. There is a stigma attached to being “hungry”. Some people feel that it makes them look like an horrible parent if they cannot afford to put food on the table for their family every day. Children are often embarrassed to say anything to their friends for fear of being made fun of or looked down upon.
I was very impressed with how the whole mobile food bank was set up. Some people were in charge of putting the boxes on the metal rollers. Individuals were responsible for certain food items. I was in charge of the orange juice. Initially I was putting two containers in each box, then I was asked to put three in each box. Others were in charge of putting frozen meat in the boxes, fresh produce or other “staples” that were being given out that day. It started out slowly because we were all trying to get the hang of it, but after a while we were cranking out boxes at record speed. In the end we created boxes to feed 300+ families. It didn’t even seem like we made that many boxes. They just whizzed by on the metal rollers.
I was really into making these boxes that I didn’t stop and think about how sore my fingers were from ripping open the boxes the juice cartons were in, or that my lower back was sore from bending over to pick up the boxes from the wooden skid. I knew they were getting heavy after a while (I think because I was getting tired) but I didn’t let that stop me. I wanted to make sure none of the boxes went by without getting juice.
I wanted to stop and take a few pictures of the boxes being put together but things happened so quickly that it was impossible to stop and take photos. This set up is like a fine tuned machine. One little “kink” (like me stopping to take pictures) could have thrown everything off. I wasn’t about to do that to my fellow volunteers.
Something that really warmed my heart was hearing the people who came to pick up the food boxes. I constantly heard people shout out “Thank you!” as they drove away with their food. I personally didn’t see it but one of the volunteers said she saw people giving the “thumbs up” when they drove by too. That was sweet of them. It was wonderful to hear those heart felt “thank you’s”.
I learned A LOT from my experience volunteering at the mobile food bank. For example, clients are not given a choice of what they get in their boxes. As much as the volunteers wish that was possible, they know it would hold up the line. They do realize that people might receive a food item they don’t like and they are encouraged to give that food item to another family.
I was curious to know how the families were chosen. Each family has to be screened to see if they qualify, so there is no worry about someone cheating the system. Each food bank likes to keep things within their communities or neighborhoods, otherwise they will be inundated with hundreds of families they were not prepared for. The LAST thing they want is to turn anyone away without giving them food, but when more people show up then expected that means everyone has to get less food to accommodate the extra people. This happened only one time with this particular food bank. Apparently word got out and more people showed up then they planned for. If that should happen again and they run out of food they will ask the Feeding America Tampa Bay warehouse to send over more food.
It’s great to know that NO ONE would ever be turned away who is in need of food.
After the last car drove off the volunteers helped to clean up. The left over food will be given to a food kitchen to help serve meals to local families. No food ever goes to waste. Even the fruits and vegetables that might not be in great shape are given to local farmers to feed their livestock.
This whole experience was not only eye opening but also educational and inspirational. I learned a lot about how food banks and food programs work. I learned a lot about hunger in local communities and it’s inspired me to seek out a local food bank in my hometown to see about volunteering to help out, not only myself but also my family. There is so much that needs to be done at food banks. They can use every able body they can get.
I don’t “see” hunger in my community, but I know it exists. I have never met or seen anyone who is food insecure. While volunteering at the food bank I not only got to see the faces of food insecure people, but I got to meet a few of them too. It put everything into a whole new perspective for me. And it made my heart smile knowing that I was doing something to help others.
I want to encourage everyone who reads this post to please consider helping out your local food bank, or larger organizations like Feeding America. Whether is volunteering for an hour a month, food donations, monetary donations or even just helping to spread the word about hunger in your community – every little bit helps.
You never know what will happen in life. Things can change in a heartbeat. Today you might be gainfully employed and enjoying the luxuries in life. Tomorrow you might find that your circumstances have changed dramatically and you are struggling to put food on the table for your family. If that ever happens you will be grateful for organizations like Feeding America, companies that donate food and the men and women who unselfishly give their time to help bring food to those in need.
Please keep an eye out for my post about the Feeding America Tampa Bay headquarters/warehouse experience. It’s very interesting.
Have YOU ever experienced a time in your life when you and your family were food insecure? Do YOU volunteer or help out food programs in your community? I would very much love to hear from my readers. Feel free to leave an anonymous post if you feel more comfortable that way.
*This post is part of the Child Hunger Ends Here campaign and I am being compensated for my participation, however all opinions expressed are entirely my own and are not influenced in any way.