Mei has been picking up weekly groceries at our Martin Luther King Jr. pop-up pantry in the Portola neighborhood of San Francisco every week. After she retired as a seamstress, she took care of her grandchildren after they were born until they grew up.
One day, Food Bank staffers passed out flyers asking participants if they’d be interested in volunteering. When Mei was approached, she immediately offered to volunteer and was eager to jump right in.
“I enjoy coming here and wanted to help out,” said Mei, who smiled behind her mask while packing some carrots and winter squash into a food bag at the Martin Luther King Jr. pop-up pantry. “I always took my grandchildren to this park to play,” says Mei, “so this is my neighborhood.”
Since then, Mei has been coming every week to pack food bags. Every Monday morning, the closed-off street next to Palega Playground and Recreation Center in the Portola neighborhood and just over a mile away from John McLaren Park turns into a food pantry. It’s a well-orchestrated symphony that participants have seen every week but are now helping to conduct.
From Participant to Volunteer
Louisa Cantwell, who supervises the pop-up, was looking for an opportunity to engage more with the community and decided to ask if the participants wanted to volunteer at this pantry with the Food Bank.
“Even though the participants all speak different languages, there’s a genuine sense of community here. A participant volunteer said to me that she’s not able to donate food or money to the Food Bank. But she’s able to give her time, and she didn’t know she was able to do it before. She feels very empowered by that.”
It’s also been easier for Louisa to fill up volunteer shifts.
“What we found was by removing the barrier of having to sign up for a shift through our website, we were easily able to get people to come down and volunteer two to three hours of their time every Monday morning.”
Annette, who’s a longtime volunteer, enjoyed seeing the change of pace since she started. “This is already a community-building experience,” she said. “To have participants volunteer with us too is incredible.”
Preparing for 2022 and Beyond
Louisa is planning to invite participants to volunteer at several other pantries. Because the community stepped up at the Martin Luther King Jr. pop-up, she’s hopeful that other pantries will see similar results
“It’s really important to put equity at the center of what we do. These opportunities will give participants agency, choice, and power in the food distribution.”
For Mei, volunteering while also receiving food made an impact on her.
“I’m grateful to be able to get this food while volunteering because it helps so many people.”