Food bank needs more volunteers to handle increase in donated food

Inside the Maryland Food Bank's 90,000-square-foot warehouse in Halethorpe, a half dozen volunteers hustled to box, weigh and sort cartons and cans of food sitting on a stationary conveyor belt Thursday morning.

In motion, the conveyor belt makes this process more efficient. But a moving belt requires a minimum of 15 volunteers stationed around its serpentine track.

In the past three months, the belt has run at about 95 percent of the shifts.

But as the dog days of August loom, it's projected to run only 75 percent of the time, said Jill Kusner, the food bank's volunteer coordinator.

The Maryland Food Bank, which was founded in a warehouse on Fairlawn Avenue, in Baltimore, in 1979, battles a lull in volunteerism each summer. This year, though, the charity needs help more than before because of an increase in food that needs to be sorted.

"Lots of people are on vacation or are otherwise engaged," said Deborah Flateman, the CEO of the food bank.

"It's typically the time anyway, when people don't think quite so much about hunger and that our machine has to keep running here 365 days a year," she said. "Hunger doesn't take a vacation. It's ever-present."

Last year, the facility on Halethorpe Farms Road, which opened in November of 2004, shipped 71,500 pounds of food a day to food pantries all over the state for a total of 26.1 million pounds. Only five years ago, the food bank distributed 11 million pounds of food, according to a release from the food bank.

At any given time, the warehouse holds 2 million pounds of food.

Though Kusner said the food bank has seen a 20 percent bump in volunteers from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012, the warehouse also has more food going through it.

"The number of volunteers we need on a more steady basis is different," Flateman said. "We've been very fortunate with produce coming through the door. And Wegman's recently joined the food bank as a food donor."

Part of the influx in produce is a partnership the food bank has with 42 farms, an increase of 15 farms from last year, Flateman said.

Volunteers, who receive training if working at the food bank for the first time, inspect the donated food to ensure it's safe for consumption, Flateman said. A good crew can sort through 10,000 pounds of food in an hour, she said.

If the food bank had to rely on a paid staff, it would "break our budget," Flateman said.

Though the food bank requires people working on the conveyor belt to be 18 or older, they allow children and teenagers older than 12 to sort produce and create three-day meal kits for people awaiting food assistance benefits.

Raising awareness to increase sources of help

The food bank has reached out to media outlets and taken to social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in an attempt to draw more volunteers.

"What we hope is we can come and catch folks' attention and inspire them to lend a hand," Flateman said.

"We're constantly trying to find groups of people from everywhere," Flateman said, mentioning businesses looking for team-building exercises for its employees as one source. "That's a very rewarding experience for employees to come in and do that."

Many of the volunteers working in the warehouse Thursday, July 26, were retirees looking to keep busy and lend a hand to people in their community.

Brent Bennett, a 71-year-old retired NASA worker, made the 25-minute trip from his home in Gambrills, just east of Odenton, to the food bank. He's been making that trip every Tuesday and Thursday for the past year and a half.

On that Thursday morning, sweat glistened on his forehead by the time he had finished moving boxes of food.

Bennett called some of the tasks that volunteers do "relaxing and energetic" and compared them to chopping firewood.

Though he likes the work, especially when it means helping others, he said the presence of more regular volunteers would certainly help increase the amount of food going through the warehouse.

"Normally, there's not enough regular volunteers," he said.

Catonsville resident Denise Phillips spent part of the three hours she volunteered on Thursday cleaning the warehouse.

A regular volunteer who has shown up each Tuesday and Thursday since May, Phillips said she started at the food bank once she retired and had finished all the projects she had around her house. She filled her idle hands with volunteer work because it left her a more flexible schedule to travel, she said.

"We can always use extra hands," Phillips said. "If someone has three hours on their day on occasion, that's all it takes.

"Coming here, you never waste your time," Phillips said. "You're working. That's a nice feeling to be working and be needed."

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