Why I volunteer at the food pantry by Roberta Parillo

I had heard about food pantries but never knew what went on at a food pantry, who worked or volunteered at food pantries, or who received food from food pantries.  One of my neighbors mentioned that her church announced that a food pantry was looking for additional volunteers.  I could say “the rest is history” because I have volunteered at food pantries and food banks ever since I made that call to ask about food pantry volunteering many years ago.

It is hard to believe that we have neighbors who need help getting enough food for their families but it is true. Once you see that, you know why you volunteer at the food pantry.

It was Labor Day, 2014. I had signed up through my church to volunteer at the local food pantry, the first Monday of every month. Roberta greeted me at the door. I worked as a pusher that first week. I pushed a two-tiered grocery cart around the aisles of the pantry as a client filled it up with selections at each station. I enjoyed it even though it was more tiring than I expected. As I left, I told Roberta that I would see her next month. “Next month!” she said, “We’re here every Monday evening. I’ll see you then.” I became, a food pantry regular, missing few Mondays. Later they promoted me to Deli Man! When the pandemic hit, I opted out. Many of my friends stayed with the program. I asked Roberta to tell my readers why she volunteered at the food pantry. Here is what she wrote to me. 

masked woman bagging processed foods
Most of the foods distributed are stable, packaged products

We get most of our food from the food bank, and we supplement that food with food we purchase thanks to generous donations from our supporters. We try to provide the food we think our clients need the most, including meat and produce.   We always have canned fruit and vegetables, tuna, canned chicken, sauce and pasta, cereal, some kind of milk (fresh or shelf stable), pasta, beans, macaroni and cheese, soup and peanut butter and jelly. Frequently we have fresh eggs, cheese and large quantities of orange juice or other juices.

We sort out all the produce we receive from the food bank and put it out on tables for our clients to pick from.  Often, we have to bag up loose produce that comes in large quantities like apples, oranges, plums, potatoes, squash etc.  The large amounts coincide with the growing season here in FL or are shipped here from other states with surpluses.   Some weeks we have more of one thing than another but there is always plenty of food to go around.

As a volunteer, you might participate in unloading the truck when the food comes in, rotating and stocking the shelves, setting up the meat and deli products, and sorting out bread and desserts all during the time we are getting ready for our clients.  Our pantry is a “choice” pantry which is similar to a supermarket.  We get to walk the clients through the pantry to pick out the food that they want and need and at the same time we talk to them about their lives.  We try to provide other resources for them if they tell us they have other needs.  More than anything, they are just happy to have someone to talk to them in a respectful way and they look forward to coming to see us.

Often, they have to bring their children.  We always have some small treats on hand to give out to the children.  Hopefully the children think of the pantry as a fun place to come to and not be ashamed about having to come to the food pantry.  Our “bread lady” sings songs to the clients and, when we have cakes, she asks if they are having a birthday.  All the volunteers get to sing happy birthday to that client.  The other clients also join in too.

The volunteers are a team, doing whatever has to get done.  No one ever has to tell anyone to do anything because we all know what has to be done. At our closing time we have to clean up and make sure everything is in order for our next pantry. I and all the volunteers go home at the end of the pantry time feeling happy and fulfilled.  We all look forward to the next week because that is a feeling you want to have over and over again.

masked ladies at the bread and dessert tables
Breads and desserts are popular with the clients

Covid-19 really “upset our apple cart”.  For weeks we were just like the grocery stores, short food because the food bank could not get food and in turn we could not get food from them.  The grocery stores did not have any surplus and they would not let us order large amounts of food from them either.  We put in place a volunteer shopping team.  Volunteers took on the task of shopping for specific items so we could accumulate enough food for our clients every week: cereal, soup, beans, canned fruit and veggies, tuna, shelf stable milk, sauce, pasta, peanut butter, jelly and anything else that was healthy and that we could buy enough of for all the clients. Everyone did their part and we were very fortunate that our pantry had received enough cash donations to enable us to buy all this food.  Many of the volunteers donated their shopping. Fortunately, we do not have to do that anymore. Our food supply is back to where we were before Covid-19.

two masked women prebagging processed food
Pre-bagging items for distribution

Due to Covid-19 we have had to change all of our processes.  The biggest change is that we have to pre-bag all of our food and now have a “drive-up” pantry.  Our clients do not get a chance to walk through the aisles and we do not get a chance to talk to them one on one.  We all have to wear masks and gloves and do social distancing in the pantry as we prepare the bags.  We also maintain social distancing outside the pantry as the cars drive up and we load the food in the client’s trunks.

Masks are hard to smile through so we wave and we tell the clients we are happy to have them there but it is not the same.  Many of our volunteers are older and are not comfortable volunteering with us at this time but the good news is there are many new volunteers who have stepped up to help out if we need them.  Funny thing is that due to having to social distance, we now have too many volunteers.  They understand and they know that we will need them when we do our “choice pantry” again.  We all look forward to that day.

man putting food into the hatch of a client's car
Contactless loading of bagged food into a car

I cannot imagine my life without the food pantry and my fellow volunteers tell me they feel the same way.  We are grateful for each other, grateful for the food we are able to give out, and all hope for the best for our clients.  We cannot fix everything for our clients, but providing them with good food and letting them know that we care about them is what we do every time we open up our food pantry.

Roberta Parillo has a Master’s in Healthcare Administration from Simmons College Boston MA.  She ran her own medical practice consulting company for over 20 years, specializing in work at academic medical centers across the United States.  She focused on large medical group reorganizations and consolidations.  She also acted as an interim Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer at several organizations. 

Her passion is volunteering.  She volunteered as often as possible while she was working.  Now that she is retired, she volunteers full time.  She spends time at the food pantry working closely with the volunteers and helping to make sure the pantry is running efficiently.  She also volunteers for AARP and for SHINE (serving the health insurance needs of the elderly) where she assists seniors who are new to Medicare, helps low income seniors obtain additional services, and works with clients to help resolve various medical billing issues.

Next week: The gospel’s guide to distributing food to the poor

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