There are a many reasons that I count myself as one of the luckiest girls in the world to be here at the Regional Food Bank every day. Don’t worry, I’m not about to write out a list of them. I’m just going to mention one that’s really close to the top of that list.
If you don’t know what Urban Harvest is, I encourage you to click that link and read up on it. It’s awesome. I have a desk job with a 2.5 acre garden in the backyard. That’s pretty sweet.
I was just now back there, in the garden, strolling through our new ‘Tomato Forest.’ This field has been planted with a variety of tomato plants that produce only small tomatoes – the best size for small fingers, small mouths, and small tummies. There are 32 different varieties with suitably varying names. Morning Sun. Riesenstraube. Isis Candy. Wapsipinicon Peach. Hssiao His Hung Shih.
I’m pretty personally invested in the successful growth of these tomatoes. I’ve spent more than one morning digging my fingers into the soil that offers nourishment and support to their roots. Last time, I was surrounded by a couple dozen middle school students who’d come to lend a hand. After several hours of ensuring that the beds of our Tomato Forest were free of weeds, I’d imagine that I wasn’t the only one in the group who hoped that our work wasn’t wasted.
And soon, when the tomatoes have grown, our forest will be ready to host another kind of youth group. You see, we like to call this field of tomato plants a forest, but really, it’s a classroom. It’s a place where low-income children from urban neighborhoods will get to see for themselves where their food comes from – what a tomato is and what it takes to bring it into this world. They’ll get to learn about natural gardening, the life-cycle, nutrition. And, of course, they’ll get to experience the delight of eating a naturally grown tomato moments after picking it off of the plant. How did you like the Wapsipinicon Peach? You should really give the Isis Candy a try.
But the vision we have for the exciting future of our tomato forest can’t come to fruition without the dedicated service of the volunteer groups that are keeping the weeds pulled today. This is true for all of the ‘classrooms’ we have in Urban Harvest – our indoor strawberry garden, our fruit orchard, all of the raised vegetable beds – our volunteers keep all of them going for us. And I hope that as they do that, they’re able to share our vision. I hope that the teenager who’s kneeling in the dirt clearing bind weed from the base of a tomato plant today can feel a connection with the child who will soon be able to visit that same tomato plant to sample his or her first fresh tomato. Then it’s a classroom for both of them.
It can be for you, too. Here, I’ll give you the link again.
Come and give us a hand. It’ll give you a chance to see what I mean when I say that I’m one of the luckiest girls in the world to be here every day.
Over the past eight months, my responsibilities here at the Regional Food Bank have included scheduling volunteer groups to come and work in our Volunteer Center, and following up with them afterwards. I am constantly surprised at how much the words ‘Thank you’ are used during those conversations and email exchanges. I’m not surprised at how much I say it. I say it a lot, and I’ll come back to that in a moment. I’m surprised at how much the volunteers say it.
Here are some examples:
“Thank you so much for getting our group scheduled. Our team is so excited to come and help!”
“Volunteering last Saturday was great! Everyone in my group was inspired by the act of helping others, and made aware of how truly grateful we are for our living circumstances. Thanks a million!”
“Thank you for the wonderful experience for my daughter and I to share. She had just turned 8 so I was a little concerned she may not be able to do what was planned for us. When her little arms got tired from packing backpacks you found something she COULD do! Thank you!!! She hasn’t stopped talking about all the little kids she helped. WE will definitely be back!”
I’m going to be honest. It’s a little bit awkward for me to receive thanks like this. I mean, think about it. We’ve asked you to give up some of the precious time from your busy schedule to come and perform unpaid manual labor. You’ve agreed to do so, we’ve scheduled an appointment, you’ve followed through with great enthusiasm. That’s amazing. It’s amazing for one person do to it so willingly, but you aren’t one person, are you? We get over 3,000 volunteers each month who donate their time and enthusiasm to our mission of “Fighting Hunger … Feeding Hope.” Volunteers are the driving force behind the work we do here at the Regional Food Bank. Did you know that you saved us over $2 million in manual labor costs last year?
And after all that, you thank me?
We already can’t thank you enough to begin with, but I’m going to keep on trying. This week is National Volunteer Appreciation Week. I hope we appreciate you every week of the year, but I’m going to borrow this platform to say it again:
Thank YOU volunteers. Thank you ever so much. We genuinely couldn’t do this work without you, and I hope you know that.
Have you ever stood in a grocery store wondering how you were going to provide enough food for your family on $30 a month? Have you ever traveled all the way to a soup kitchen that wasn’t even open, or lost precious time in a waiting room to find out that you don’t qualify for SNAP benefits?
I’m lucky; I haven’t. But, I know a lot of students who have. That’s because we’ve had a lot of students come to the Regional Food Bank to participate in our 15-minute hunger simulation over the last few weeks.
Though a hunger simulation may sound like an act of deprivation, it’s really more an exercise in frustration. That’s the way I like it. I greet classes that have decided to come to the Food Bank for this excellent field trip experience and I smile big and tell them how happy I am that they came. It’s true, too. I am happy that they came. And I am happy that they are about to be frustrated.
I don’t want it to seem like I take general pleasure in other people’s stress and anxiety because normally I don’t. I make an exception for the students participating in our hunger simulation because while they are brooding over budgets, sweating in the SNAP office, and anguishing over the mock month that is quickly ticking to a close, I know that they are experiencing something important. They are experiencing the reality of hunger.
And I hope that when we finish the exercise and I tell them that over 600,000 Oklahomans live with food insecurity, they know what that means and what it feels like. I hope they make the connection that many of those Oklahomans are very like the personas they took on for the hunger simulation – regular people just trying their best to get by.
That’s why I feel a small surge of satisfaction every time I see a student throw his or her hands up in front of our fake soup kitchen’s closed sign because I hope that frustrated student understands, at least a little, what it’s like to live with hunger every day.