Story and photographs by Marilyn Englander, Food Bank volunteer and founding head of REAL School Marin
Joe, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank Community Engagement Coordinator, fondly calls them “The Sustainers.” He explained to me how a loyal group of volunteers faithfully shows up every week to help in the warehouse.
There is the Monday gang, and the Tuesday gang, Wednesday and Thursday groups. But many Mondays are also Tuesdays, and some come all four days. Their volunteer efforts equal the work of more than two full-time paid employees. Without them, the Food Bank could never get so much food out to the neighborhood pantries for neighbors in need.
Andy drives all the way from Vallejo, and Kevin takes a 30-minute bus ride from Mill Valley, then walks two miles on foot. Sandy always brings mouth-watering cookies to share during the morning break. They secretly plot birthday celebrations for fellow volunteers, everyone joining in to serenade as the honoree blushes. Starting out strangers, slowly they have become the backbone of the Novato operation, and also a community to each other.
I had decided to volunteer on a whim, choosing a slot open on the Food Bank website calendar. I assumed everyone did the same: once in a blue moon, we’d consider giving our time. The first day I turned up, I had no idea I was sorting, packing and stacking food alongside real experts. But I certainly admired Bryan’s skill as he rapidly assembled and taped boxes. Betty had mastered sorting slippery packages of frozen meat, and Peggy tirelessly leaned over and over again into a deep bin to retrieve heavy cans of beans. Mary had the wash-and-sanitize station under strict control. Jacky was there five days a week running the “shopping” area where small nonprofits come to choose supplies for their pantries.
The Sustainers exude enthusiasm and drive as they tackle each three-hour shift. You would imagine they were competing in an Olympic challenge, they show such focus and efficiency. They chat a little, but mostly it is a joyful frenzy: bag 300 pounds of pasta before noon, label 1200 jars of instant coffee — and get those labels on straight! One time we dug through 20 bushels of green peppers in 30 minutes, checking for blemishes before boxing them up for the pantries. It’s grunt work, but with the Sustainers in the lead, it’s as if we’re kids playing in a sandbox. And they do it day after day, week after week — heroes guaranteeing everyone gets to eat.
Feeling inspired? Learn more about volunteering and sign up > sfmfoodbank.org/volunteer.