Saturday, January 24, 2009

Feelin' Good

So, while I wouldn't exactly call our volunteering experience yesterday at the Food Bank fun, it was enjoyable. We spent the afternoon sorting a couple of pallets coming in from a grocery store, but first, we had to be trained.

Training consisted mostly of explaining the distribution chain and making sure we understood what we could and could not accept as we sorted the food. The food bank sorts the food and distributes it to about 300 other organizations in the county who then prepare or otherwise get the food to individuals; they do not give food directly to individuals from the food bank warehouse.

The training on what is and isn't acceptable was a bit more detailed, and surprising. We were told we needed to read the ingredients list of every product for alcohol content. This actually makes total sense to make sure that folks in recovery aren't inadvertently exposed to alcohol but I hadn't thought about it until they told us. We found salad dressings that contained wine and a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale mustard.

We also needed to read the ingredient lists because of the current salmonella outbreak associated with peanut butter. As the contaminated products list expands to include pet foods and brownie mixes, rather than expect us to memorize an 8 page list of unacceptable peanut products, we were asked to simply segregate anything containing, or exposed to, peanuts for food bank staff to sort through. We got a whole box full of sliced almonds, halved walnuts, pecans, and cashews, but because they were processed in a plant that also handles peanuts we had to set them aside. Anything that contained peanut oil also fell in this category.

Anything separated from it's ingredients list was immediately discarded.

We also had to set aside non-food items (adult diapers, cough syrup, tampons and the like), which are typically rerouted to health clinics. Surprisingly, we saw quite a bit of that, though the strangest item in that category had to be the personal lubricant. Who donated personal lubricant? Nevermind.

We set aside pet items, which get sent to the local SPCA, baby products, both food and non-food, were set aside to go to specific community organizations, and we set aside any straight-up alcohol for the food bank staff. Just kidding. Though we did get a bottle of white wine in one box.

We also had to remove high-sugar content drinks. To help battle obesity, Alameda county doesn't allow high-sugar drinks (full-sugar sodas and juices) to be served to children by county agencies, or agencies that receive county assistance. So out went all the Capri Sun and Juicy Juice pouch drinks.

Along with what types of items we could and couldn't accept and what to do with them, we were also instructed on how to spot spoiled foodstuffs, and how to evaluate damaged packaging to determine if the food inside was still acceptable.

We were all stunned at how much of the canned food was unacceptable due to denting. Any can with multiple dents, accordion-style denting, or a single dent where your finger fits in the valley of the dent was thrown out. Of the 20 – 25 boxes of food we sorted, we only accepted 4 cans. We could tape up cardboard packaging as long as the contents were sealed in bags.

I've always associated food drives with canned foods, but after seeing how much of it gets discarded, I'll be donating other types of packaging from now on. The best type of packaging was probably the vacuum-packed pouches—the pouches are flexible and pretty difficult to puncture, they're lightweight and don't take up nearly as much room for storage and transport. We saw pouches of pasta sauces, tuna, and chicken breasts. One of the chicken breast pouches had ruptured, though, and had gotten pretty funky.

Any foodstuff that was unacceptable and unspoiled and wasn't in a can, was set aside for the pigs. The food bank has a huge bin for collecting this stuff that's then sent to a pig farm out in Stockton, and let me tell you, those pigs eat well. Grandpa was a pig farmer and he would have loved an arrangement like this.

After our warehouse shift was finished, we sat down with a community outreach representative and he gave us some facts and figures. The one that really stood out to me was that historically, the food bank used to get about 75% of their donations from grocery store leftovers, but today that number is closer to 35% and it's because computers and software have enabled stores to better manage their inventory and ordering.

While they still receive food donations from individuals, giving is concentrated during the holiday season and the food bank ends up purchasing a lot more food to help fill the gaps than they ever used to.

Anyhow, that's what an afternoon at the Alameda Food Bank was like. There wasn't nearly as much physical work as I had anticipated with warehouse work, but I am a wee bit sore today. It was a rewarding experience, and a reminder of how easy it really can be to give back to the community. I hope to do it again.


  1. Interesting. David's Aunt Suzy said those tuna pouches were a problem when she sorted because so many got ruptured. Makes me wonder what the two different food banks do differently.

  2. Thanks so much for your service at Alameda County Community Food Bank.

    Just to clarify one point regarding the food that you were sorting:
    Those items were left-over items from grocery stores as opposed to donated food from the general public. As you mentioned, computer technology has led to very little “left-over” food being around anymore. (Currently, only 1% of the food bank’s total volume consists of these “left-over” items.)
    In addition to much more efficient inventory management for grocers and food processors, computer modeling has also helped to support a secondary market where left-over items can be sold (at grocery outlets, flea markets, dollar stores, etc) at a profit. This means that the small amount of left-over product that does make its way to food banks is often of fairly low quality (which explains the large percentage of dented cans and damaged goods that you encountered during your volunteer experience.)

    Hopefully, this sheds a little more light on your volunteer experience at the Food Bank. Your service is much appreciated.

    Charles Beyer, Volunteer Manager
    Alameda County Community Food Bank