Hungry to Help: How Emergency Food Groups Have Learned to Lean on the Free and Able

By: Leslie Koren

Once a week for 16 years, Liz Scheier has traveled around the city to hand food to the hungry from the back of a van. She’s fed the disadvantaged even longer, having volunteered when she was six to pack bags at a food pantry with her mom. “Living in a big city, it’s just not possible to look away from the need; it’s there every day,” she says. “And it is incredibly clear that there but for the grace of God, go I.”

Scheier is one of the legion of volunteers committed to fighting hunger citywide. Together, they are the lifeblood of the emergency food network. By leaning on the efforts of this willing, able and — importantly — free workforce, Robin Hood’s emergency food programs have managed to keep costs down just when programs are being asked to serve more and more needy neighbors. Among poverty fighters, no group is more dependent on or better able to deploy its volunteers.

“We couldn’t function without volunteers,” says Stewart Desmond of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. “Not only because they save us money, but because they help us present our wares to clients in the nicest possible way.”

“We couldn’t function without volunteers,” says Stewart Desmond of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. “Not only because they save us money, but because they help us present our wares to clients in the nicest possible way.” Desmond estimates they used 29,000 volunteer-hours in the past fiscal year. “At this point, some are almost employees,” he says.

Historically, hunger organizations have received little government funding, so the less they have to allocate to salaries, the more they can spend on feeding those in need. “Back then, many pantries and kitchens came out of the faith-based community, which was volunteer-oriented,” says Stephen Grimaldi, NYCP executive director. In 2015, NYCP volunteers worked a total of 46,769 hours, which represents a savings of $1,256,215 in labor.

To lure even more help and retain the helpers they have, organizations are always considering the volunteer experience. “No one wants to show up and stand around doing nothing,” says Anthony Butler from Brooklyn’s 
 St. John’s Bread and Life. “We get a lot of groups here because we give them work. Plus, we believe everyone can volunteer. We get a lot of 
 developmentally disabled adults who come back again and again because we give them responsibility.”

On a recent weekday afternoon at the NYCP, some teenagers from the Youth Service Opportunities Project, several Mennonites and a group of Wells Fargo employees work with each other to fill orders in the packing room. While The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” blasts from computer speakers, two boys gather food for a family of six, the Mennonites break down bulk packages into smaller servings and a regular volunteer named Barbara Hall sweeps the floor.

“I love the clients I’ve gotten to know,” says Hall, who has served here once a week for 10 years. “I love the people who work here. And I love when a group from a big firm comes to help and you don’t even know who the CEO is. I can’t wait to get here every week — I just can’t wait.”

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Robin Hood’s story.