Families Helping Families: Volunteer night at the Food Bank

As Lori Peters of Goshen packed a plastic bag with apples at The Food Bank in Hatfield on a recent Tuesday evening, she kept an eye on her son, Eldon, 7, and daughter, Desi, 3, who were filling their own bags next to her. Across the table, her husband, Joe, cradled son, Simon, not quite 1, in his left arm while holding his apple bag in his right hand.

“We have been looking for an opportunity to volunteer as a family,” Peters said as she worked. “I want my children to be less self-centered.”

The task was to sort through boxes of fruit to find non-bruised apples and fill each plastic bag with nine. The bags were then sealed tight with a tape dispenser and placed in other cardboard boxes, which were piled onto a wooden pallet in the center of the room.

“This is a great opportunity for kids,” said Alissa Shea of Northfield as she monitored the apple-packing efforts of her sons, Liam, 7, and Aidan, 6. “It helps them become activists in their community.”

The Peterses and the Sheas were among about 30 others who had come to the headquarters of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts on North Hatfield Road that evening as part of its Family Volunteer Day program. Volunteer days, held monthly through the fall, are organized by both The Food Bank and Hilltown Families, an online network for families in Western Massachusetts to promote activities, camaraderie and community involvement.

In the warm months volunteer sessions are also held at The Food Bank Farm in Hadley.

They’re “a great way for families to work side by side while supporting their neighbors in need of food assistance,” said Megan Pete, director of development at The Food Bank. During a typical volunteer session, the families are given a tour of the facility, participate in a game and then sort food — generally fresh produce — that will be distributed throughout Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties. More than 200,000 people count on The Food Bank’s offerings, she said.

“The kids want to keep coming because they realize that it’s fun,” said Laura Bezio of Erving, who was there with the students from the religious education class she teaches through Our Lady of Peace in Turners Falls. Last summer children from her class — who are mostly from Turners Falls, Millers Falls and Erving — pitched in at The Food Bank three times. “It’s important for them to see the bigger community,” Bezio said.

“I like knowing it all goes to a good cause,” added Bezio’s 11-year-old daughter, Catherine.

Families want to help

The collaboration between The Food Bank and Hilltown Families began when the family group took a field trip to The Food Bank’s Hatfield site three years ago. They have worked together on several occasions since.

“Volunteering there really opens up conversations with children, and gives them a sense of empowerment while learning about food security,” said Hilltown Families founder and executive director Sienna Wildfield.

In September of 2013, Wildfield said, Hilltown Families worked with Whole Foods Market in Hadley to glean 669 pounds of kale, collards, broccoli and chard left after the harvest in the fields of Atlas Farm in Deerfield. The produce was then donated to The Food Bank.

Wildfield said that many families relish the opportunity to volunteer together.

“In a world of commercialization, families are looking for ways to connect with their community, beyond just going to the mall or seeing the newest Hollywood blockbuster,” she said.

Chris Wojcik, communications manager at The Food Bank, agrees. “There aren’t too many volunteer opportunities for kids,” he said. “Our family volunteer days are quite popular.” In fact, he added, “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without volunteers.”

The Food Bank provides food to 250 member agencies, including homeless shelters, food pantries and other meal sites, said Wojcik. After agencies place an order for food, they either pick it up in Hatfield, or The Food Bank delivers it to them.

A new program called the Mobile Food Bank trucks food to a particular spot in a community — like a church or agency parking lot — at a scheduled time. It’s like a free farmers market, Molly Sauvain, education coordinator at The Food Bank, explained to those gathered at the Food Bank that Tuesday evening. And that is how the apples they were packing would be distributed.

Later she explained that the apples were sent out to Springfield’s Forest Park neighborhood the next day, then to two more sites in Springfield: Indian Orchard and Brightwood.

“If we didn’t have those volunteers last night, those apples would sit in the refrigerator for additional days, so volunteer power ensures we can get fresh produce out to folks that need it quickly,” she said.

Moose Tracks spied

Shortly after the apple packing got underway, Sauvain asked three girls from Hadley Girl Scout Troop 1126 — each of whom was there with her mother — to make beeping noises to notify everyone of the approaching pallet jack as she pushed it into the room from the large adjoining warehouse.

“We want the girls to see themselves as agents of change,” said Mara Breen, of Hadley as she watched Sauvain maneuver the pallet jack. “And for them to be aware of their privilege.”

Thirty or so minutes into the volunteer night, Sauvain led the families on a brief tour of the warehouse, past shelves of seemingly endless boxes of canned corn, pasta and soup, to a closed door.

“What do you think is in the freezer?” she asked.

“Ice cream!” several kids responded enthusiastically.

“Well, mostly it’s meat,” Sauvain said, opening the door so the children could go inside. “But maybe there’s some ice cream in there.”

When they emerged, a couple of the children said they indeed had spied Moose Tracks — a vanilla, fudge and peanut butter-flavored ice cream — on the shelf.

“It’s warmer in there than it is outside,” one parent quipped.

Sauvain then brought the families to a large refrigerated room, which she said contained 100,000 pounds of produce.

Girl scout Maya Wysk, 10, raised her hand. “Who gets food from the Food Bank?” she asked.

It mostly goes to working families on a fixed income, Sauvain answered, as well as older people, and children.

As the night went on, the families continued to fill bags with apples, and boxes continued to pile up, eventually covering a second pallet. By the time the families had finished around 8 p.m., over 60 boxes had been filled.

Becky Demling of Amherst, who was working with her daughter, Amanda, 11 (“11 and a half,” Amanda noted), and sons Tim, 14, and Jacob, 16, said that she and her husband, Peter, had struggled to put healthy food on the table when their children were younger.

“We try to come to any family Food Bank event,” she said.

Though they don’t struggle in that way anymore, she said she wants her kids to be aware of families who don’t have easy access to food.

That evening was her family’s fifth Food Bank volunteer night.

“It’s important that our kids do this,” she said.

(Originally appeared in the Hampshire Gazette.)

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