Anyone work in a food pantry?

I’ve been thinking about doing more volunteering and my sister has expressed interest in maybe working for a food pantry. We thought it might be nice to volunteer together. Anyone have experience working in a food pantry? What was it like?

We’re in an extremely depressed part of a depressed state and we know the food pantries have been hammered by the recent storms/power outages, general depression, and the upcoming cold weather.

Kind of depressing, not that there’s a lot of really upbeat volunteer jobs.

It was kinda weird. Our clientele was largely Russian, and we had to be very careful to put exactly the same things in all the boxes going home with all the Russians or they would feel bad about it.

We had a bunch of weird donated things that weren’t routinely put into the boxes that people had to ask for. These included hair dye, disposable diapers, deodorant, tampons, dog kibble, and if anyone asked for fabric softener, we had these things that you stick onto the dryer drum that last for many cycles. Of course, most of these people would have been using the dryer in a laundromat or their apartment laundry room, rather than their own dryer, so that probably wasn’t too effective.

In general, the stuff we had to put into the boxes was crap. There was lots of sugary cereal. The grocery stores were really good about donating out-of-date cookies, so for Christmas we had Halloween-decorated cookies, for Valentine’s Day we had Christmas-decorated cookies, and so on throughout the year. (Although they did come up with some Easter baskets, with toys, at the appropriate time.)

The bread was at least a day old, the milk was past its sell-by date, the cans were dented or outright bashed, the fruit was bruised, the vegetables were on their last legs, and the Russians didn’t want certain things (bananas) and wanted other things we never had (beets). In general, you would be hard pressed to make nutricious meals out of the stuff. I’m not even sure all of it was safe to eat (particularly the bashed cans).

I started out just loading the boxes, then did the check-in thing, and then went back to loading the boxes. The upper echelon of volunteers were the ones who went out and solicited things (like the aforementioned cookies). These were usually women without paying jobs, and they really seemed to look down on those of us who had to work, but they were very nice to the people who got the boxes.

This thing at first was set up during hours when most people who were working couldn’t come to pick up a box–although the working poor were the ones who qualified. (If people got food stamps or could qualify for them, we weren’t supposed to give them boxes.) I lobbied for them to change this, and when they did, we got way more people than we had food for, so they changed it back. Rather disappointing. I don’t know why the elite bunch didn’t just go out and find more loose food. They were pretty good at it.

Oh, we also had a budget to buy some fresh stuff every other week. Once again, those with good negotiation skills went to town, so there were usually a couple of pieces of meat per box, and this was where we really had to be careful. If one Russian got a chicken breast and chicken thigh, that’s what they all had to get.

Thanks, Hilarity N. Suze. You paint a pretty grim picture, but that’s what I was expecting.

I live in a rural area so there aren’t huge numbers of people to use things like food pantries. On the other hand, there aren’t huge numbers to donate, either.

I ran a food pantry program for many years in a small town/rural area. On average we’d serve about 10 families a week (only open three days a week, 3 hours a day) It wasn’t bad working there at all. A person would come in, fill out the paperwork, you’d check if they were eligible, and then fill the order. We were usually skimpy on meat products, but had lots of canned vegetables because that is what people donated a lot of. We also “bought” foodstuffs and cleaning products from Second Harvest. We usually were able to give each family about a week’s worth of food of decent quality. There was always tuna, peanut butter, cheese, bread, cereal, the canned vegetables and beans, pasta, and rice.

Why don’t you visit the food pantry before you commit to working there? It might not be as grim as you think. The main thing any of my volunteers ever complained about was “having to work with poor people.” Apparently, they had having fund-raising parties or office work in mind, and we didn’t do either of those things. Those volunteers disappeared pretty quickly.

Yes, I’m planning to. Thanks for the insight.

Heh. Similar for us; isn’t it weird? One night a new volunteer took a look around at all the clients and said “What is this, Somali night?” The staff person next to me said, “Yeah, well, they work during the day; evenings are their only chance to come here.” Volunteer: “You mean the WORK?!”


I work for a large non-profit in the same building as the food shelf; we have the same clientele and I sometimes volunteer for their weekly evening shift. Like any other job some clients are cool and some are assholes, but keep in mind that it’s extremely embarrassing to have to ask for help to put food on the table and stressed people act out in weird ways.

I know different places have different setups so I won’t get into the minutiae of the job, but there’s a lot of stacking/sorting (and folding, if your local food shelf has clothes as well) beyond simple client contact.

One thing you’ll learn quick is that a lot of people think it’s perfectly ok to donate out-and-out garbage - torn/stained clothing; used underwear; broken dishes; broken toys; games and puzzles with half the pieces missing…it’s really pathetic. At least at our shelf the unwearable clothing is either cut up for quilts or sold for ragstock, but not every place has the staff/volunteers for that.

I really like volunteering but it’s not for everyone. Regardless, we’re always short staffed and your place will be happy to have you for however much time you have to offer. Fair warning, though - you could get addicted. :wink:

I’ve done a lot of volunteer work at the local food bank. It’s rather rough work, mostly involving packaging and shipping food to wherever it needs to go. Once I and the other volunteers sorted a huge load of potatoes that had gotten frozen going through a pass in the Rockies and had subsequently been donated to the food bank because after that incident they were insalable. In spite of the smell we went through them and did find a lot of good ones.

It is probably a good idea to eat before you go over there. You’d be surprised at what being surrounded by food can do to a person, particularly if that person is hypoglycemic.