Food banks see more volunteers, but uncertainty looms


Volunteers pack and distribute food to people in need at the New York Common Pantry on 109th Street on Wednesday, December 1, 2021, in the Manhattan neighborhood of New York City.  (AP Photo / John Minchillo)

Volunteers pack and distribute food to people in need at the New York Common Pantry on 109th Street on Wednesday, December 1, 2021, in the Manhattan neighborhood of New York City. (AP Photo / John Minchillo)


Inside the bustling New York Common Pantry, people scramble to assemble bags of carrots, apples, potatoes, and other items. Outside of the pantry, others are hauling deliveries or handing out produce to people lined up around the Manhattan-based charity block.

Randi Goldstein, 43, was one of the volunteers that day, along with his colleagues at a literary and arts agency to help out with the holidays. Like many Americans, they have been working from home since the start of the pandemic and feel disconnected.

Volunteering together was one way to reconnect, despite lingering concerns about what the omicron variant can do. Cases have been reported in many states, but scientists cannot yet say whether it is more dangerous than previous variants.

“I’m worried about this,” said Goldstein, a talent agent. “But I think we’re at a point where you also have to someday start living your life as safely as possible.”

More people are volunteering in the pantry this holiday season compared to last, when vaccines were not yet widely available. But the numbers are still insufficient compared to the number of people who gave of their time before the pandemic. The same is happening in other charities, although the new variant has brought more uncertainty to what lies ahead.

One in four American volunteers, performing billions of service hours each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most common of these is the collection, preparation, distribution or service of food.

In Colorado, Teresa Dilka, a 68-year-old retired nurse, started volunteering at the Food Bank in the Rockies a few months ago, only after getting vaccinated against COVID. She says she used to donate money to the Denver-based food bank, but her income declined when her mother passed away. So she stopped giving money and started volunteering her time instead.

“Sometimes it seems like it helps me more than it helps them,” she said. “It feels good to be able to help. “

At the Arizona-based St. Mary’s Food Bank, one of the largest in the country, volunteering has not declined since news about omicron was released, said Jerry Brown, spokesperson for the organization. . Many of their volunteers had just returned this holiday season after last year’s big decline, when their volunteer numbers fell from around 200 to just 30 per shift.

Many of those who quit volunteering were seniors or corporate employees who stayed on the sidelines when their business shifted to remote working. Brown said the food bank was only able to continue distributing 250,000 meals a day because the Arizona National Guard stepped in to help assemble boxes of food and load them onto trucks. The association’s accountants and other employees were also approached because the demand was simply too high.

“One thing the pandemic has surely taught us is: never take for granted the spirit of volunteerism and its importance to us,” said Brown. Before the pandemic, he said he sometimes didn’t notice the hundreds of volunteers packing boxes because they were there every day.

“But since the pandemic we’ve all made a greater effort to make eye contact, smile, greet and thank,” he said. “We’re grateful because we all know what it was like here without them. “

A spokesperson for Feeding America, a nonprofit that coordinates the efforts of more than 200 food banks across the country, said an internal investigation by the group in September showed that 127 food banks in its network still needed volunteers.

Outside of Chicago, large groups of corporate and church volunteers who once were a big help at the Northern Illinois Food Bank aren’t showing up as much anymore. However, some people who interrupted their volunteering last year have slowly returned, and others who stepped in to fill the void have remained, said Shannon Thompson, the organization’s director of volunteers.

This slow and steady increase in volunteers comes as Americans feel less anxious about resuming their previous activities and charities are more comfortable staffing their warehouses, a trend that may change depending. results on the severity of omicron.

But for now, volunteer windows are full for the month of December at the Oklahoma Regional Food Bank, which distributes food to community organizations in 53 counties across the state. Cathy Nelson, a spokesperson for the organization, said they resumed volunteering in April after suspending it for a year to reduce potential exposure to the virus.

“It was not an easy decision to make,” she said, adding that the food bank had hired temporary workers to make up for the loss, which cost them an additional $ 15,000 per week.

Their current teams are limited to 80 people, against 150 before the pandemic. Masks are compulsory. Vaccines are not.

Volunteer registrations surged until January, although Nelson said she was encouraging more people to volunteer after the holidays, when charities typically see a decline in the number of people helping out.

The pandemic, in many ways, has forced charities to innovate and offer virtual or remote volunteering options. But these options may be limited for food banks, which need more practical help.

“It has really been the lifeblood of how food banks and agencies get food to their communities,” said Lauren Biedron, vice president of corporate partnerships for Feeding America.

Virtual volunteering is relatively new to the organization and its network, she said. But he has tried to tap into a group of people who are exclusively interested in doing things at home by hosting webinars that people can attend, and encouraging them to call officials and advocate for the policies he supports.

Needs are different at the New York Common Pantry, where you can regularly find Andy Disda, 53, carrying boxes in and out of the building. Unlike many who stayed on the sidelines when the pandemic struck, he stepped in to help when the need was extremely high. He said it helped him feel like he had done something positive with his day during a time of great desperation.

“It’s a bit addicting,” he said. “There wasn’t much going on where you had this feeling, and volunteering is one of those things that gave it to me.”


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