Volunteering at LA Food Bank

I didn’t know what to expect when I promised to volunteer at the LA Food Bank on a February morning. We’d box food, I guess. Where does that food come from? No idea. Where does it go? Who knows? If I’m completely honest, I didn’t really know anything about anything, but I was curious enough to find out.

If you know me at all you know that I’m somewhat cynical, have a tendency to be bossy, and I love to ask questions (some relevant, some not so much). From the moment I arrived and saw the crowds, I had about a million of them. “Who are these people? Why are they here? Why am I here? Do I have to get to know them? Why do they look so happy – it’s so early. Is there coffee?” Turns out they were mostly groups of college students, nursing students, random people put together by various organizations like GiV LA, run by my friend Nicole Pajer – which, let’s be honest, was why I was there. (If I didn’t support a friend, after starting a website about volunteering, what kind of a shit was I?) So I dedicated three hours of my Saturday to volunteering. Noble? Whatever. It was three hours. Hardly cause for back-patting.

The good people at the Food Bank in downtown Los Angeles had us watch a video before we got started. I expected a 60 Minutes segment. We got Sesame Street. “People all over America are hungry, Elmo.” I wanted to raise my hand, interrupt the 7-minute puppet lecture on poverty and go, “But why? Why are they hungry?” We’re not delving into the real issues here, Elmo. Yesterday, I read on Facebook – the oracle of the 21st century – a mention about the TOMS campaign where the company donates a pair of shoes for every pair of shoes you buy. The blurb from the 7 Worst Aid Ideas said, “Not having shoes isn’t a problem about not having shoes. It’s a problem of poverty. TOMS (and other buy-my-product-and-donate companies) are busy building the exploitative global structure that produces economic inequality, while on the other hand pretending that supporting them actually does something to fix it. It doesn’t. It just gives people shoes.” That’s how I was feeling.

For three hours we separated bad produce from good produce and dented aluminum cans from pristine ones. We threw out bread, chicken cutlets, and boxed useless items like mini-donuts and flowers. We debated the freshness of celery that was within its expiration date but looked gnarly. At the end, people were high fiving, as if we’d completed a Survivor challenge. But this is no reality competition. 37 million Americans go hungry every year, and while handing them food solves a problem it doesn’t solve the problem. Why do 37 million Americans go hungry? What can we do for them to not need food donations?

I could get preachy about keeping the underprivileged in a position of need as opposed to giving them the tools to thrive on their own. But I don’t know nearly enough about the subject matter to do more than start a debate, from which I’d hopefully learn more. My three hours of goodwill, however, gave me the strongest sense that there is a better way to help people. It also taught me that I’m a shitty volunteer. All I want is to stop, take a moment and make a plan (excel sheets!) to run things more efficiently. Is there really not a better way?

Carita Rizzo

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