Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work or volunteer at a food bank? Maybe you are recently retired and looking to give back to the community now that you have more free time. Or maybe you recently got a job as a food banker.
That right: “Food Banker” is an occupation in this line of work and “food banking” is a verb. And every person I’ve met who works at a food bank always says the same thing: “I never thought I would work at a food bank.”
Is a Food Bank a good place to work?
On my very first day of my job at the food bank, I went on a tour in the warehouse. It hit me at that moment that the place was a good fit for me. I immediately thought “I’m going to be here for at least 5 years.” With most of my previous employment lasting no more than 2.5 years, this was pretty monumental. I had never said that about a workplace in my life.
I did end up staying for 5 years plus. Like with every organization, there are issues and complaints. But for the most part, it has been a great place to work. My co-workers are kind and pleasant to work with (it’s almost a requirement to be compassionate to work at a food bank!). The work culture and my job in programs allow for flexibility, creativity, and empathy.
Although it has never been on anyone’s mind as a career goal or ambition, I have no regrets about working there for a few years.
Food Banks in the News
During the past year of the pandemic, there has been a ton of media coverage of food banks for once. You may have seen coverage of the aerial shots of cars lined up miles-long waiting for a free food distribution. Or the lines of people in masks with personal shopping carts ready to pick up from a church. For many, it is the first time they are seeking help from a food bank.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and rise in food insecurity, food banks have been getting a ton of funding. Millions of dollars are pouring in, not only from the federal government but also community donors. And unlike other non-profits that are struggling to keep their doors open, our food bank is actually hiring.
Like with most industries, it was shaky at the beginning of the pandemic. Now it seems crazy for any of us to leave. Not only have we remained employed during this entire time, we have all gotten raises as well as extra pay for working on the front lines.
Brief History of Food Banks
Food banks exist because the government failed people in the 80’s. The Reagan Administration drastically cut welfare benefits for the working poor, which led to “rapid rise in activity from grass roots hunger relief agencies”. Read more about the history here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_bank
Here are some other things you may not have known about food banking:
- Feeding America is the mothership. Most of the bigger food banks are under the umbrella of Feeding America, headquartered in Chicago, while food banks partner with many hundreds of partner agencies that offer pantries at their churches, etc.
- Where does the food come from? Food sources come from a variety of places, including the federal government (USDA programs), donated from manufacturers, food drives from the community, grocery stores, and purchased from vendors
- Food banks don’t just give out food. Most of the bigger food banks have many programs outside of food distribution. At our food bank, we have programs in home gardening, nutrition education, culinary training, food justice and advocacy, and
- Concrete-carpet culture. This is commonly known throughout the food banking world, that the employees are divided into two very distinct cultures. In our food bank, it’s the upstairs/downstairs culture. In other food banks it’s known as concrete vs. carpet divide. Either way, there is an underlying current of resentment and tension between the two departments.
- Benefits/perks may outweigh the pay. The benefits from working at a food bank depends on the specific food bank that you work at. If it’s part of the Feeding America network, you may have the opportunity to
- Learning opportunities
- Tote bags
- Free food
- Food insecurity existed in the U.S. way before the pandemic. Before I got my job at a food bank, I remember seeing a commercial on tv that said 1 in 4 children are hungry in the state. I was shocked by this. I had heard about child hunger being rampant in the developing countries I worked and visited in. But to have hungry children in the U.S., the richest country in the world, is unacceptable. Some other interesting and shocking facts about hunger in America I’ve learned on this job (according to Feeding America):
- Navajo Nation in Arizona once had the highest rate of child food insecurity in the nation.
- Food insecurity and hunger disproportionately affect children of color (black, Hispanic, and Native American).
- The clients we see on a regular basis are not homeless. The majority of people seeking help from a food bank are working families that struggle to make ends meet. They may be in single-parent or multi-generational households, underemployed/unemployed, or have other debts that take priority over grocery shopping such as rent, utilities, and medical bills.
- Volunteers are everything to food banks. There was a statistic that 1 year of volunteer hours worked at the food bank equaled 85 full-time employees. There are so many people who volunteer for us – not only in moving food but compiling survey results, going on monitoring visits, filing, etc. No food bank can do what we do without the help of volunteers.
- Many food banks don’t just want to give out food. Many food banks are tired of seeing the same lines year after year. Many food banks have been around for 20 years doing the same thing and haven’t seen the lines change. To truly move the needle, it’s not about handing out as many pounds of food as possible. It’s about addressing the root causes of hunger, which may include addressing poverty at its core. That means targeting racial inequities in our system and the lack of economic opportunities. This may involve community organizing, and policy/advocacy. More and more food banks are moving toward addressing these root causes.
Hopefully this list helped if you are considering working at a food bank or curious about what it’s like to work in one.
What are your thoughts? Does a food bank seem like a good place to work?