Learning through Volunteering

Written by guest blogger, Lisa Chubrilo. Lisa is a student at CU Boulder and is taking a class on Food Sustainability. One of the requirements for this semester is to volunteer with an organization involved in any aspect of food production or distribution. Lisa reached out to LFR. We are happy to share your experience in volunteering with us.

The organization I volunteered for was the Longmont Food Rescue. My volunteering activities included researching Longmont’s Sustainability Plan and writing a blog about it for the organization’s website. My supervisor, Kelly Mahoney, is hoping that eventually this city-lead plan can include tackling the issue of food waste by incorporating Longmont Food Rescue. While the sustainability plan has currently implemented intensive residential composting programs, there isn’t a strategy in place for reducing waste at the retail level through food donations.

I was also involved with picking up donated food from Whole Foods and delivering it to Longmont Food Rescue’s monthly program Produce in the Park. This farmer’s market is put on entirely by volunteers and is held in Collyer Park in Longmont. The event offers groceries through Whole Foods as well as occasional donations from other grocery stores that have available products that day. On the day that I attended, a local family and girl scout troop brought apples picked from some apple trees on public property. I documented this experience and made copious notes in order to write up another blog about it to post on their website.

Through this experience, I was able to learn more about the food system through multiple channels including grocery stores, the municipality of Longmont, non-profit organizations and consumers themselves. By spending a large amount of time researching Longmont’s Sustainability Plan, I gained an understanding of the complexity of implementing a city-wide agenda. During the next decade, the city will be focusing on key areas of sustainability such as improving air quality, reducing water consumption and preserving the natural environment. One of the main areas that the city wants to improve is the local food system, which they have already begun by developing immediate strategies of community composting and sell back programs. While the current plan addresses nothing about grocery store waste, they are continually updating the plan to include ongoing strategies that improve both Longmont’s infrastructure and business policies. The possibility of future involvement with Longmont Food Rescue seems inevitable and in line with the goal of the city’s plan.

While most of my volunteering time consisted of specific research regarding Longmont’s Sustainability Plan and passing on the information to the organization, I also took part in two Produce in the Park events. This is where people from within the community come to Collyer Park in Longmont and are able to take any of the food that is being donated with no questions asked. It was an eye-opening experience for me as it was evident that there was a large amount of people in need, many of whom couldn’t afford organic fruits and vegetables. A lot of what I learned about myself was realizing my desire to become more involved in my community and offer what I can to improve it. While I have taken a large number of college courses that have made me aware of the numerous issues people are faced with every day, actually getting out there and seeing it first hand is completely different.

The exposure to a smaller organization that is just starting up also educated me about the particular challenges they face, especially with coordinating the volunteers and assigning them to their strengths. I was asked to take on various writing assignments including blogging for the organization, as oppose to actually participating in the physical food donations. I had originally expected to be utilized in the food collection and delivery process, yet there was a decent amount of people involved in it already. The challenge then for me was focusing on researching and essentially writing up a blogpost assignment similar to what we did in class. I was happy that in the last week I was able to follow another volunteer through the actual donation process, pick-up and delivery to the farmer’s market in the park.

The most surprising thing to me was learning the history of the Longmont Food Rescue’s program, Produce in the Park. When it first began, they struggled with getting citizens in the community to even come to the park and take the donated food. As word of mouth spread the events began to gather more people and now much of the food is gone within 15 to 20 minutes of arriving. It was alarming to realize that there are people that struggle to even obtain enough food to feed their families, much less have access to healthier products and organic produce.

Even though I was only involved with two of the events of Produce in the Park, multiple people at each event were so extremely grateful and thanked me personally. I was taken aback by this, especially since I had only donated a few hours of my time and hadn’t completely understood how an action that I considered relatively convenient, could have such a large impact on another person. While it was rewarding to have this experience, it also left me feeling disheartened since not only do these events only occur once a month, but that meanwhile huge amounts of food are being thrown away in grocery stores instead of being given to those who really value it.

This work related a lot to the food waste issues we discussed and explored in class. Seeing the donations that would otherwise simply be trashed or composted just because there were slight blemishes or past the “sell by” date really made an impact on me. While we read a lot about these issues and see pictures on websites, it is a very different experience seeing it with your own eyes. The fact that most grocery stores don’t have the built-in infrastructure or procedures to donate food on a normal basis to the community of which they are a part is extremely upsetting.

While we didn’t really discuss in class what goes into food related non-profit organizations and how they’re run, working with Longmont Food Rescue showed me how difficult it can be. The struggles with startup non-profit organizations and getting other institutions involved in implementing goals has a multitude of challenges that didn’t occur to me previously. While there is an ongoing partnership between Longmont Food Rescue and Whole Foods through donations, it was evident that the process has its difficulties. The produce that we went through to bring to the park was housed in a very small back area that is normally used for flowers and plant arrangements. I was very surprised that there wasn’t a designated area for donations and that there wasn’t more from which to choose.

The food system of a standard grocery store is relatively cyclical regarding the receiving, displaying and then discarding of food. As a result, it seemed as though provisioning food through donations isn’t a straightforward task and instead slightly disrupts and complicates the process. Hearing from other volunteers showed me that often food is accidently taken by the wrong organization and it isn’t always clear how to make sure that the etiquette of volunteers, such as cleaning up after a food pick up, makes it so that donating continues to be ‘worth it’ for the store.

While I don’t feel as though I re-examined my position on topics such as food waste and grocery store donation policies, I know that by experiencing these issues more directly it helped substantiate my views. The fact that grocery stores don’t have mandatory standards when it comes to donations and preventing food waste seems absolutely ridiculous to me. In this day and age when we have both the access to extensive communication technology and numerous conscientious organizations, getting food to those who need it should be a relatively undemanding and seamless process. While many of us would hope that this could be implemented through voluntary action alone, after this experience I am doubtful that anything other than regulation policies would alter standard grocery store practices.

I think many of us, including me, forget what a privilege it is to go into a grocery store and have whatever you need right there, all the time. Witnessing people come to the park and be so thankful was a painful reminder that many people have to make sacrifices when choosing to feed themselves or their family. Having the opportunity to become involved with Longmont Food Rescue and their goals has been an altering experience and has motivated me to continue working with them in the future.