Volunteers in Arizona build successful food bank network

Volunteers in Arizona build successful food bank network

Tino Serrano

Volunteers in Arizona Build Successful Food Bank Network

The Westside Food Bank in Surprise, Arizona, is regarded as something of a model food distribution organization because of the efficiency with which it coordinates direct food assistance throughout almost a quarter of the state.

According to director Bill Ennis, Westside is successful because of the 600 people who staff the main facility and the more than 100 local food distribution sites. With very, very few exceptions, they’re volunteers.

According to Ennis, Westside uses more volunteers, in more kinds of jobs, than any food bank he knows of. “While our distribution is the largest of the food banks in Arizona,’ he says, “our paid staff is the smallest.

“We use volunteers in every area of the program, including setting policy at the board level.’ Only four or five of the 600 people on the regular staff are paid. Another 4,000 to 5,000 volunteers help with Westside’s gleaning programs.

Part of a statewide food bank network

Westside is part of a statewide network of five food banks that have joined together to get USDA-donated commodities and other food to low-income Arizonans.

This year, the food banks will distribute more than $10 million worth of food to more than 70,000 families, reaching every county in the state.

Of the five food banks, Westside serves the largest geographic area, including Coconino, Yavapai, Mohave, La Paz, Yuma, and some parts of Maricopa County. In a typical month, the food bank will collect, store, and ship out as much as 700,000 pounds of food for distribution to some 15,000 families.

Handling that much food, Westside’s loading dock is a busy place. Every day volunteers driving station wagons and trucks arrive to pick up food to replenish the shelves of local food pantries.

Trucks ranging from farmers’ pickups to large interstate rigs pull in to drop off donations. Federal commodities, which account for a third to sometimes half of the food Westside distributes each month, arrive from USDA.

Mammoth commercial rigs deliver infant formula and a variety of other products donated by manufacturers. Food also arrives from Second Harvest, a nationwide nonprofit food clearinghouse, and from local grocers, who donate day-old baked goods and other foodstuffs. Westside’s own trucks deliver fresh produce from Arizona and California.

Food is carefully sorted and stored

Once on the premises, the food is sorted and prepared for shipment. In the main storage room, shelves up to the two-story ceiling are packed with cases of donated goods. There’s also a cold storage room for frozen products awaiting shipment.

In some cases, foods are processed to make them easier to handle. For example, some of the oranges are juiced and the juice frozen in plastic bottles. Some of the apples are frozen and packed in plastic bags, while others are made into canned applesauce.

Everything is spotless and meets or exceeds commercial industry standards. Ennis and his volunteer staff are often visited by the food bank’s private food industry contributors.

“These firms have invested a tremendous amount in their product’s reputation and want to make sure that what the public receives from us is of the same quality as they’d purchase at the supermarket.’

Ennis is proud of Westside’s own good reputation and makes sure that his volunteers know their contribution is what makes the operation a success.

“I think a lot of times volunteers are treated as incidental to a program,’ he says. “They are actually the key and need to be treated that way.’

The appreciation and attention the volunteers receive begins with their initial contact with Westside. The first thing they do is complete a three-page questionnaire about their job skills and interests.

“We screen the volunteers to help us guide them into a job that will be rewarding to them, and us, and something they will enjoy,’ Ennis says.

Volunteers work in variety of jobs

There are a variety of jobs involved in collecting food, placing it in the hands of recipients, and taking care of all the administrative work in between. Volunteers do computer programming, data entry, and clerical and reception work; interview and screen clients; sort, box, and store food; work in the warehouse; and make pick ups and deliveries.

When they join Westside, volunteers receive a general orientation and then specific training in the job they’ll be doing. Anyone who will be handling food, for example, gets several hours training on safe food handling.

All volunteers work at least one 4-hour shift each week, from 8 a.m. to noon or from noon to 4 p.m. Some work almost full-time. As much as possible, they’re scheduled in teams so that the work is an enjoyable, social experience.

The extra consideration has paid off in terms of a committed, experienced workforce with little turnover and, therefore, little need for ongoing recruiting or training. Some of the volunteers are veterans with more than even Bill Ennis’ 8 1/2 years of experience.

“Any recruiting is through the volunteers by word of mouth,’ says Ennis. He is able to fill the occasional vacancy with people who call or visit to inquire whether they can help. When some extra help is needed, it’s announced in the bimonthly newsletter to 8,000 Westside supporters.

Many volunteers are retirees

Ennis acknowledges that Westside has a couple of advantages in attracting and maintaining a large, skilled volunteer workforce. The main food bank facility in Surprise is new and provides a very pleasant working environment, and it’s located near several communities housing retired people with free time to contribute.

In fact, almost all of the volunteers at Westside are senior citizens who live nearby. Typically, they are retired professionals. Says Ennis, “People who have been successful in their own work life are the type of people we have here in their retirement years.’

The volunteers are most visible in the food banks and local food pantries. That’s where you’ll see Jack and Barbara Kell.

Barbara has been volunteering her time at the Glendale food pantry–4 or 5 hours each week–for more than a year. Jack joined her last summer when he

retired from a 27-year career as an electromechanical technician.

The Kells are community service veterans. Raising their four children they were involved with Boy and Girl Scouts, PTA, and 4-H, and they’ve always been active in their church. They donate their car and their time to provide transportation to residents of nearby Senior Village.

“How much free time can you really use?’ says Barbara. “We believe the good Lord put us here to go out in the world and help others. Some people give money or things. We enjoy this kind of one-on-one help better.’

Volunteering has its own rewards

Herman Ebert, who is 84 years old, works two weekdays at the Glendale food pantry. Often he works at the reception desk, where he is the first point of contact for people coming in for help. He’s been working at the food pantry for 8 years, and on the three weekdays he doesn’t work at Glendale, Herman works as a volunteer teacher’s aide.

Louise Henzler came to Arizona from New York 20 years ago when her husband retired. Almost immediately she volunteered to teach English. Now, she spends half a day each Tuesday, and occasionally a Thursday evening, at the new Westside facility.

Like many of the volunteers, Louise helps out in a number of different jobs. Sometimes she checks to make sure the food is fresh and ready for distribution. Other days, she spends her afternoons answering the phone, getting some filing done, and writing thank you notes to contributors.

Her concern for people is common among the volunteers. So is her desire to contribute. “You’ve got to see the people who come here for food,’ she says. “It’s a blessing to be able to help.’

The professionalism of Westside’s volunteer staff has won the food bank recognition beyond Arizona’s borders. But it means most to the families whose lives are made a little easier because the food bank is there.

For more information, contact:

Bill Ennis Westside Food Bank P.O. Box 1310 Sun City, Arizona 85372 Telephone: (602) 242-3663

Photo: Food from USDA and commercial donors fills Westside’s large warehouse. Volunteers (left and below) work in a variety of jobs, ranging from office work to checking and packaging food for distribution to families.

Photo: Westside schedules volunteers in teams to make working an enjoyable, social experience. Many are retirees who live nearby.

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