Ask the food pantry volunteer

I’ve been volunteering at a local food pantry in Portland, Oregon for about eight years now, working intake for the most part, but I’ve also worked other areas occasionally.
Any questions?

Is that the same thing as a Food Bank?

What we do is we put different categories of food on different shelves, with a label above each shelf saying how many of each type of item they can have depending on how many people they are shopping for. They get a minimum of one item per shelf, and nobody gets stuck with food they neither can’t eat or won’t eat.


Just curious - what are those categories? I’m assuming you have boxed/canned/non-perishable items but what about fresh fruit, vegetables, etc? Also, do you have other things like toilet paper or soap in addition to food?

Canned and boxed soup of various types and brands on one shelf, dried pastas on another, canned fruit on another etc., refrigerated items in the fridge and frozen meats in the freezer(both upright and glass-doored), and personal hygiene items in the back room given out on request. What is on the shelves depends on what we have in stock, of course.

I wish you’d opened the thread a few weeks ago. My employer was running a canned food drive, from Thanksgiving to Christmas and I wasn’t sure what were the best items to purchase for the collection bins. And I was wondering if a cash contribution was better than my buying food items at retail prices. In the end I did both. I made a cash contribution (actually using a credit card) on the food bank’s website, marking the contribution against my employer’s campaign. And I bought canned goods for the food drive as I was buying my own groceries. I mostly bought canned vegetables (green beans, green peas, canned corn) and soups (tomato soup, chicken noodle soup, vegetable soup, some broths). Mostly the soups were in small, single serving cans.

Those are good items to donate, so thank you. One of the things we do is put together food packs for those who have no cooking facilities. Pre-cooked meats and sausages, pop-top chicken or tuna with crackers, fresh fruit and veggies, and other items that will get them through hard times. We also try to have things on hand for those that are lactose intolerant, gluten intolerant or diabetic.

Actually, I did get ten cans of tuna (I think five-ounce cans), when they were on sale for a dollar each, or ten for ten dollars. (I’m a sucker, and will buy exactly ten cans at such sales.)

Merry Friggin’ Christmas-I just got word that another local food pantry just closed up, and the Oregon Food Bank wants us to increase our hours to take up the slack. At this time we are open three days a week, and are the only place in the local area that is open on Sunday. I guess we’ll just tack on another couple of hours each day.

Do you find that food donations go in cycles along the year? (Assuming the answer is yes…) What parts of the year do you tend to be emptiest?
ETA: Just saw your comment about the other bank closing. Hopefully you can pick up some of their donations, and many volunteers, to help ease the load.
Good luck with it…

It’s not so much the time of year as it is the time of month. The disadvantaged tend to run short the second half of the month, after they have received the monthly check and blown it on things like rent and utilities.

What would you say are the least popular items you receive as donations?

10 pound tins of jalapeños, large cans of diced black olives, and stale bread. The first two are things that large grocery chains donate for tax credit, but are next to worthless to us because we cannot repackage it for distribution. The stale(and often blue-spotted) bread often goes straight to the garbage when we find it amongst the good stuff.

Do you have a large need for baby things at a standard food bank? The homeless shelter (also runs an outreach program) that I work with is constantly looking for diapers, baby wipes/ointment and of course baby food.

I don’t have questions because they’ve already been asked, but I just want to say thank you and I appreciate that you are serving those in need. We spend a lot of time thanking the military ( and we should) but I know I don’t spend nearly enough thought or time thanking those who get out there and volunteer to serve those in need. And I/we should… I really admire you and wish I could get out and do the actual hands on stuff myself.

And any information or points you think might help the rest of us when donating are greatly appreciated by me and others I’m sure.

Actually, I do have one question of you have if you have time to answer… what motivated you to start volunteering? I realize that isn’t relevant to the most important questions I probably can’t think of, but I’m always interested in knowing what inspires someone to actually get out there and just do it. Thank you :slight_smile:

What exactly does “intake” entail? Do they have to prove they’re low-income?

Is it a lot of the same people going regularly or a lot of different people who only go once or a few times? What are the clients like? How much food do they get?

We used to have a program for that when I was working in a prison. Local farmers would harvest their crops with mechanical pickers. These machines would often miss a lot of the crops. So the farmers would give us permission to send crews of prisoners through the fields after they were done harvesting to pick all the missed vegetables by hand. We would then donate these vegetables to local homeless shelters.

Here in the suburbs of Chicago many of our food pantries are growing food to add more fresh produce to the available stock. Also, there’s a nonprofit building raised beds and teaching food pantry clients to grow vegetables. I think there’s a lot of exciting work being done. Anything along those lines being done in your area?

Also, I dropped off a big bag of fresh herbs once. I hoped that maybe they would make the canned beans more interesting. I hope that was useful. The guy running the place seemed excited. Maybe he was hoping to rope me in for some volunteer work. :slight_smile:

When new clients come in I tell them that we have two qualifications:

  1. Are you human?
  2. Do you eat food?

If I get a “yes” to both of these questions, I then ask them their names, and how many people are in their household(or camp). I then tell the new ones that they can only use our pantry once a month…but I give them a sheet with the locations, telephone numbers and hours of operation for all the other places that might be able to help them.

Not half as many repeats as you would think.
They are human beings, pretty much like you see in the mirror every morning.
We try to give them more then they would expect, not less than they deserve.

When I volunteered at a food pantry, we had a table in the lobby for things like that (and yes, we did once get a #10 can of jalapeno peppers, from a Pizza Hut that had temporarily closed). People could take as many of those items as they wanted; not only were they unusual sizes, but anything that had a label not in English (VERY common in this college town) or an item that very few people would know how to use (the first thing that comes to mind was a jar of pickled grape leaves) went on that table. I also remember a gallon jug of ketchup with a squirt thing on top, and yes, people did take all those items at some point.

The biggest surprise to me is that their clientele was mostly senior citizens.