Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Food for Thought

Finally a volunteer opportunity came my way that allowed me to help the homeless in my community. I have been calling soup kitchens and food banks for the last three weeks. I understand most of these places are staffed by volunteers themselves who work on part time schedules, but when people are calling to literally show up and help in any way they can, it is so critical that these organizations are there to return those calls and open their doors to people.

After some deep searching and a few wonderful recommendations, I stumbled upon Manna Food Center located in Gaithersberg, MD. Not only did I have an email response back from their volunteer coordinator the next day, but I was invited to volunteer for various days and times the same week I contacted them. Manna is a non-profit aid organization that donates food to families in need, senior citizens and people with disabilities all around Montgomery County (thats just outside DC for those distanced folks reading).

Happy to have a dear friend volunteer with me, we settled on a date and time and showed up to be greeted by a volunteer in the warehouse. Large pallets of every kind of food from rotisserie chickens to birthday cakes were spread out, ceiling to floor, throughout the warehouse. We were escorted into the back to sign in, put on plastic disposable gloves and assist with bagging collard greens. Food is donated from various types of organizations from processed food vendors providing boxes of crackers and cookies to local supermarkets with left over packaged salads and sandwiches which went unsold that day or the day before in their aisles.

We bagged collard greens for about an hour, taking large handfuls and stuffing them into plastic disposable bags. When full, we passed our bags to a man with a large shopping cart who tied the bags and distributed them to the food boxes. The cases of collard greens were cold since they were put on ice to keep their freshness. Water dripped all over the floor and we sat on milk crates to keep help keep our backs somewhat comfortable as we hunched over to fill our bags.

When we were done, we were directed to the shelves with the food boxes, each filled with a package of rice and a bag of our collard greens and we walked up and down the aisles with a variety of additional items (bunches of broccoli and bananas for example) to add to them. I noticed that certain boxes received more food than others depending on where it was located on the shelf. It was hard to see what the boxes on the top shelves already had and the lower shelves were simply easier to fill.

It started me thinking that if I was in the situation where I needed to rely on a place like Manna for food, I would hope to have a lower box handed to me. That being said, I am certain the recipients of these meals are just so happy to receive something. I did see a lot of the donated fruits and veggies were beyond their prime and many boxes of them were discarded. Some donations like the tofu or ready made supermarket sandwiches were also beyond date so those were sorted through as well. Its nice to know that even people who have nothing still deserve some dignity and food that is clean and in decent condition. That being said, it hurt me to see anything going to waste when we could put one more apple in one more person's basket. Definitely will make me think twice before throwing food away or taking too much on my plate---something I am guilty of on a regular basis.

I sometimes wonder if its a third child syndrome or something. You know, people blame everything that went wrong in their lives on their childhood. I could say that I had two older siblings so I needed to take all the food I thought I could possibly eat at the meal in my first serving to make sure I had enough to eat before everyone else ate all the food. Which if you come to any of our family meals that include my older siblings, this still holds true today. However, I have learned in my own small nucleus of a family, that sometimes waiting to take seconds allows for both a more enjoyable conversation and sometimes the surprise of not really being so hungry for more.

That being said, I think I had a great childhood, complete with a warm and loving family, a nice big backyard surrounded by lots of grass and my elementary school complete with a playground and a pretty decent education. Our childhood is our starting point in life but its what we choose to do with it and where we let it take us that is the most important. To say I couldn't do this or that, only limits me. To say I can try and I can dream, only expands my abilities to become more.

Ok enough ethical mumbo jumbo. I had fun today packing veggies and making food boxes up. I found it especially interesting to see folks lined up inside the lobby of the food center ready to pick up their goods. When I used to live in Jerusalem, I volunteered regularly at a food pantry for Jewish victims of terror and their family. Located in the observant neighborhood of Meah Sharim, Ohr Meir V'Bracha, is a weekly food distribution center where volunteers, mostly yeshiva and seminary high school students, come on a weekly basis to pack food baskets from donated goods and watch as survivors of terror attacks and their families arrive to pick them up (complete with chicken and challah bread for shabbat) as well as deliver goods to survivors unable to pick up their own food.

The organization itself was started by a victim of terror who lost a few children in a bus bombing. She also helps collect financial donations to send children of terror to summer camp and provide for family counseling and cover medical and cost of living expenses. If you are looking for one of the most honest and need-worthy charities in Israel, this is THE place. The difference between the American and Israeli food banks was that the Israeli center met in a parking lot in rain or shine and didnt have fancy loading docks or machinery to load and unload the trucks. They had a mini delivery van or two and rows of baskets. I hear now that they have built a proper office to manage paperwork and even set up a local office in New York to oversee American donations. Regardless of their difference, people are in need and thank g-d these organizations are here to help out where they can.

In honor of today being my mother's birthday, which I somehow forgot to mention in this entire post until now, I really wanted something to do to occupy my time. And ideally something that could just be busy work for a few hours to distract me from the day. My mom died in 1979 at the age of 32, which I believe if my math is correct, would have made today her 64th birthday. It always sort of creeps up on me, her birthday every year. Her death date is a more prominent date in my mind (November 6, Cheshvan 16) since I go to the synagogue and say kaddish for her every year. In addition, my synagogue also has the date of her death on their internal calendar and always happens to send me a letter reminding me that the date of her yahrzeit is upon me and would I like to make a donation on her behalf.

But her birthday always catches me by surprise. I see it as a day that used to be so happy for her and I try every year to look around me for something to smile about on her behalf. Yesterday I bought some pretty orange tulips at Whole Foods. On Monday, I baked banana chocolate chip muffins with Ma'ayan. And today, I went to the food pantry to pack food baskets.

These are some of the things I do to make myself smile at a time when I want to be sad. At a time when I want to mourn the life that once was and the one that was taken away from me when we were both so young. But I have to remember sometimes that this day isn't just about me for my pain. Its for the woman I wasn't afforded the chance to see and to hear and to love in person. I feel like I owe her some happiness and a smile. I do these things to remember her and to keep her memory alive. She bestowed so many wonderful things on this earth, in her family, in the kids she taught, in her love of Judaism. To me, giving to others without being thanked is what I truly believe is the best way to honor the memory of a loved one who has passed on. So tonight, may it be that my actions and my merits be in her honor and on her behalf so that her soul can continue to rise just that little bit higher. Or at the very least, may she look down and smile at the life and the good deeds she has inspired once again.

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