Omicron wave causes US food banks to scramble for volunteers

Michael Altfest, community engagement director of Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, California, called it “our biggest volunteer event of the year.”

But many food banks have chosen to cancel their plans this year or continue with numbers that are completely lower than in pre-pandemic years.

Altfest says his food bank’s King’s Day event drew 73 people spread over two shifts while previous years drew more than 200 with all volunteer slots booked New Year’s Day. The food bank did not attempt to host an event last year.

In Tallahassee, Florida, plans for a volunteer-led holiday event were abruptly canceled when all volunteers dropped out. Schofield said executives at her food bank in Huntsville, Alabama, are debating whether to cut their mobile pantry distribution because they don’t have enough food boxes. volunteer packing for distribution.

Volunteer shortages are not uncommon.

Michael Manning’s Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank in Louisiana said his volunteer numbers remained strong and his MLK Day event went on as usual with two shifts with more than 50 people.

But several food banks have reported a similar move: minimal volunteers for most of 2021, then spiked last fall through November and December before falling off the cliff in December. January.

Food banks often employ volunteers to sort through donations and pack boxes of ready-made merchandise for distribution. Ordinarily arrangements were made for local companies or schools to send in large groups of volunteers, but that left the system vulnerable as those organizations withdrew all at once.

In Big Bend .’s Second Harvest food bank in Tallahassee, Florida, the number of volunteers remains solid through the omicron surge. But CEO Monique Van Pelt said she was forced to cancel her MLK Day plans because all the volunteers were from a single corporate partner who “didn’t think that getting together as a group was one of the most important things to do.” Such a narrow area is safe.”

Jamie Sizemore planned 54 volunteers from three corporate groups at Feeding America, the food bank of Kentucky’s Heartland in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. But two groups canceled, and the third group sent less than half of the promised amount.

“We tried to select a few individuals at the last minute from a total of 12 volunteers for the day,” says Sizemore, chief executive officer. She added that a permanent team of eight regularly assigned Kentucky National Guardsmen helps fill volunteer gaps.

With the exposure risk seemingly less than warehouse work, outdoor volunteer work has taken a hit.

In Irvine, California, Orange County Second Harvest Food Bank launched an ambitious farm project on 45 acres of land provided by the University of California. So far, 22 acres have been planted with cabbage and broccoli, and it’s time to harvest. The plan was conceived with the intention of employing up to 300 volunteers per week, organized in groups from corporate partners such as Disney. But most of the cooperative organizations have suspended their volunteering activities amid the omicron rise.

“It was a disappointment because it was such a great outdoor experience,” said Claudia Keller, CEO of the food bank. “We think this is a short term thing. We know many volunteers who are trying little by little to get out there. “

The sudden absence of a volunteer workforce leaves most food banks with a more expensive option. When the farm lacks volunteers, salaried workers are hired.

In Food Bank of the Capital Region in Washington, DC, CEO Radha Muthiah had to order pre-packaged trucks of mixed cargo for distribution because there weren’t enough volunteers to pack.

“When it’s prepackaged, that tends to increase the price significantly,” Muthiah said.

A truck with product on pallets costs around $9,000, but a truck with ready-to-deliver care packages can cost between $13,000 and $18,000, she said.

Beyond the financial costs, some executives point to a more subtle impact.

“Volunteer isn’t just about packing boxes,” says Schofield from the Alabama food bank. “It builds camaraderie and a sense of community. It is a sign of a healthy community in general. “

Vince Hall, government relations officer for Feeding America, which coordinates the work of more than 200 food banks, says the number of volunteers partly reflects long-term emotional fatigue and exhaustion. As the country endures a second pandemic winter and the omicron variant reverses some of the progress people have come to expect from a vaccine, longtime volunteers are feeling disheartened.

“These people are really part of our volunteer workforce, they’ve been doing this since March 2020,” Hall said. “It caused some emotions for people.” Omicron wave causes US food banks to scramble for volunteers


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