Volunteer Journal #98 - LA Regional Food Bank

The trusty work boots at sunset. To my knowledge I have not been stuck in a freezer the size of a tennis court yet, so this was a first.

I was in the gleaning room of the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, going through thousands of pounds of salvaged food from restaurants, grocery stores, and manufacturers.

Celebrating 40 years of service, the LA Foodbank has redistributed over 1 billion pounds of food to the needy. 1 in 6 people in Los Angeles are at risk for hunger.  Many of them have worked their whole lives, but are members of the working poor - those who must decide between rent and  food, or medicine vs. lunch and dinner.

Physically, the building is imposing, looking like a Costco with pallets of food stacked from floor to ceiling. And the gleaning room - is freezing. My infamous knee high work boots (see pic) and nano puff jacket were almost not enough. I needed a hat and gloves.

My group of volunteers was tasked with sorting everything, and throwing away any donated items without a clear expiration date and ingredient deck.

LA Regional Food Bank

Most of the mountain of food was salvageable, however I was not sad when I had to make the call to trash several hundred pounds of an unmarked butter substitute/margarine.  To be fair the margarine company probably didn't want to print the ingredient deck because it's nasty.

What was fun? Climbing on top of a mountain of food to pass packages down.  Hey, heat rises. I'm nothing if not practical, and a monkey-like climber.

It's tragic that we still need such a large facility because so many people live in poverty. However, I am eternally grateful that the LA Regional Food Bank exists, and that over 200 volunteers showed up, today and many days, to get food ready so many people in LA, including 400,000 children, don't have to go to bed hungry.

Volunteer Journal #62 – Canned Food Drive

Okay Okay Okay Okay Okay.  I can admit when things don't go according to plan. I organized a Food Drive in Beverly Hills. We did get donations, don't get me wrong, but for Beverly Hills... the turnout was lackluster.  Here's what went right and wrong. Location, Location, Uggg Cliched Location

Throwing the Food Drive in Beverly Hills seemed to be a stroke of genius.  I partnered with a prestigious family owned spa named Verabella located right in the center of the Golden Triangle (two blocks off Rodeo on Canon for thse out of towners).  Owners Vera and Victoria were virtual angels and even agreed to give free product to everyone who brought in cans.  The problem was that the spa, tucked inside an office building, is an ideal hiding spot for celebs because it doesn't get much foot traffic. With little foot traffic, and food drive visibility, our monstrous donations box was overlooked.


This I did right and wrong.  What I did right - I got the food drive up on VolunteerMatch.org and in The Beverly Hills Courier a week before it ended.  What I did wrong - it should have gone up two weeks before the food drive ended. When throwing a donation drive of any kind the good people at VolunteerMatch have your back.  Also always contact your small local papers - they are usually more than happy to post your event.  Big thumbs up to Breton at the Courier for getting my press release up on the website and in the paper so fast - we definitely got donations because of you.

The Box

It always comes down to the box doesn't it. Something so stupid and it made a huge difference!  At my gym they are doing a food drive for the LA Food Bank.  The LA Food Bank provided these big ugly boxes with a bright yellow design that says Donate Food in huge letters that any blind person can see on across the top. The box was placed in the gym's high traffic lobby and they've received truck loads of food. We had to make our Food Drive box. I hate designing or decorating anything okay - you should see my sparse apartment.  I'm a words girl so the box was ugly. I wish I had a picture but it broke the camera.  Lesson learned.  Stay away from box design.

Neighborhood Engagement

This one is not my bad.  I walked around with my model friend Dana passing out flyers for the food drive to local businesses.  I figured it was best to bring a model along because no one tells a model no. Ever. About half the stores were lovely, getting excited and promising to put it up on their bulletin board.  The other half looked at me like I had a goiter. They did the same to Dana so lack of cuteness wasn't a factor. Yes, the flyer might have been a bit wordy, but seriously, it's a can of food!  It costs 50 cents! You have to walk two blocks to drop it off!  There are worse things in life... LIKE BEING HUNGRY IN THE WINTER.

In Conclusion

I hope the lessons I learned from my Thanksgiving Food Drive help you throw a more successful food drive either this Holiday Season or the next.  The bags of food collected at Verabella was donated to The Midnight Mission in Downtown Los Angeles (one of my favorite charities) which offers a bridge to self-sufficiency for the homeless in the LA area.  They operate without government funding and help those in need without sermonizing.

Happy Holidays Darlings!

Food Insecurity and Climate Change

Extreme weather conditions fueled by climate change will increase food insecurity across the globe. Scientists and humanitarian groups point to events like this summer’s record breaking heat in Russia and floods in Pakistan and Canada as examples of how food stocks are likely to be affected in the coming years. "Climate change will lead to different weather patterns, and that is what we are already seeing in many places like Pakistan and Russia. It doesn't rain the way it used to," World Water Week director Jens Berggren told AFP recently . Russia’s hottest summer on record helped fuel 600 wildfires near Moscow, which destroyed almost one-third of the countries buckwheat crop. This crop loss led...Read Full Article

Volunteer Journal #59 – Share Our Strength

I got the call from Share Our Strength on Friday requesting volunteer help on Sunday for the LA Times Celebration of Food and Wine benefit at Paramount. Regardless of the late notice, I got butterflies. Maybe even a bit lightheaded. Some people go weak over movie stars – I lose my mind over gourmet-handcrafted food. To prep for the large amount of yum I would inhale (for charity yada yada yada) I ate nothing but fruit and veggies for two days, lived at the gym, and fasted the last 18 (miserable) hours before the event.

Technically, Share Our Strength had asked me to help sell raffle tickets at their booth, and I totally intended to – once my food obsession had been satiated. I arrived early so my eating would not cut into my volunteering time. Before I type out this entire embarrassing list I want everyone to know this happened over several hours and most of the food was in sample sizes – okay. Alright here goes…

First stop Coolhaus – retro-architectural-gourmet-ice-cream-sandwich-chow-truck – I got peach cobbler ice cream sandwiched between two oatmeal cookies, next the Dosa Truck for a Dosa (Indian crepe) wrapped around spinach, cheese and potato with curry sauce, a Chocolate Chipotle Cake Ball at Delicious Wishes, Aged cheddar samples, spicy potato salad, blueberry lemonade, homemade strawberry buttermilk ice cream, Thai pitas and mung bean pattie (better than sounds), gourmet potato chips, wahoos veggie tacos, chocolate cake muffin, homemade s’more at Madame Chocolat, oh crap almost forgot and then a snickerdoodle cookie at the end. I have no idea how I ate that much it was an awesome feat. Estimated calorie intake 4000 to 5000. Days would have to fast to make up for today-3. Was it worth it for one day of gourmet gluttony?  Yes.

As for the volunteering - I manned the booth with the other volunteers but the best time I had was helping the chefs and restaurant owners set up the VIP area. Though some were a bit snippy (who will remain nameless here). I probably ran across the lot 6 times filling various requests. I ended up invading the Paramount set supplies at one point and snatched some unused black curtains to use as table linens because we had run out. I did this under the eye of a Paramount security guard who saw me taking the curtains and said, “Ma’am, can I help you?” He said it like, “Ma’am can I take you to studio jail?”  So I played dumb, which I hate doing but... [bat eyelashes, flip hair, jut out hip]... I said, “It’s the damn’dest thing I just can’t get these curtains off the metal poles." They were attached to because they were part of a stage. The over accommodating guard said, “Oh let me help you with that.” So children -when stealing act like suppose to be stealing.

Here's the irony in this volunteer assignment and blog.  Share Our Strength helps fight childhood hunger and food insecurity.  Over 17 million children in the United States, that's one in four, faces hunger.  I stuffed myself like a little pig at an event to help children who may not even get one good meal a day.

On a side note (and I do this out of love and with the knowledge that TheGoodMuse’s design is far from perfect) – Share Our Strength has one of the most difficult websites to negotiate of any charity I’ve ever seen. It’s like a word bomb went off on every page. After I was asked to volunteer for the LA Times event I literally had to Google LA Times Food and Wine to find any information because I couldn’t find it on their website. What’s needed? Fewer words. Easier Tabs. Events page with info. General volunteer sign-up - THAT’S EASY TO FIND. More concrete factoids, for example: How exactly does the Great American Dine Out raise money to help stop hunger? What percentage goes to support your programs? On a positive note -The Great American Bake Sale page has improved since last year because of a searchable map.

Bottom-line on the Share Our Strength Website– less pomp more substance. Potential volunteers please don’t get discouraged or frustrated.

Nat Turner, Blair Grocery & the Lower 9 Garden

"No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities - always see them for they're always there." -- Norman Vincent Peale Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans five years ago flooding 80% of the city, destroying homes, stores, schools, churches, and lives. When the levees broke the Lower Nine, one of the poorest areas of the city, found itself under 15 feet of water. The predominately African American community was almost wiped off the map. Even today only one fifth of the original residents have returned and the infrastructure is almost non-existent.

Maybe New Yorker Nat Turner saw an empty canvas instead of abandoned lots when he arrived in the Ninth Ward with $12 in his pocket. A schoolteacher by trade, he first...Read Full Article on Celsias

Volunteer Journal #58 – The Midnight Mission

I lived in a loft above Skid Row when I first moved to LA. I always say it was a green loft because the building housed an electric company before me; the heater didn’t work so it was very energy efficient, and I was so poor I couldn’t buy anything new. But I was comfortable compared to my homeless neighbors who I watched mill about on the street below… One night the temperature dropped to freezing, a rare occurrence in LA, and I saw paramedics pull a frozen homeless man from a phone booth.  They peeled his fingers off the phone one by one. I still wonder about him – what was his name, how did he end up there, and if I had seen him before his demise would I have helped. I wonder whom he had called or wanted to call and what he wanted to say.

I also think of the woman who, every morning, would pull on a uniform and get ready for work in and around her 4x5 tent. More than one person got ready for work in a hovel on that street – the reality of being one of the working poor in America.

Living in a half way decent place, in a bad location, and struggling for grocery money I did not even consider going 2000+ miles back to the place of my birth for Thanksgiving.  Instead, I decided to volunteer at the Midnight Mission, which was only one block down the street. I thought this was a particularly good idea because I was so close to being in the serving line myself - best to scope out things ahead of time. I asked a friend to join me, because I was too intimidated to go alone. Their response…

“No, I don’t think so. I mean, they might want to talk to me. I don’t know what to say. That could be awkward.  It ‘s just going to be sad and dirty. Let’s not.”

I was cowed and nervous so I didn’t volunteer, which made me start thinking… How many people don’t volunteer because they’re scared or have the wrong impression like my friend? What if I volunteered and wrote about it to show people what its really like?

And thus TheGoodMuse was born.

Ironically, 57 volunteer adventures later I still hadn’t returned to Skid Row to help out.  Maybe it was all a little too real or raw.  Whatever the reason I was happy when the Reader’s Digest article published and I got a personal invite to volunteer from Mai Lee, Community Relations Manager, at the Midnight Mission.

The Midnight Mission’s goal is to offer a bridge to self-sufficiency for homeless people through counseling, education, training and job placement. They also offer all the necessities of life to the homeless of Skid Row: food, shelter, clothing, personal hygiene and medical care. They do all this and much more without a dime of funding from the federal government. And although the title “Mission” would imply religious affiliation there is absolutely no sermonizing for services.

The Mission itself is an intimidating new structure of glass and steel.  Mai Lee met me in the lobby.  Tiny, energetic and smiling she said, “I don’t do an orientation for anybody.  I make it as easy to volunteer as possible.  Let’s put you to work.” She gave me a “I Love The Midnight Mission” apron as a gift and then threw me into the industrial sized kitchen to work. (P.S. Mai Lee – I’m a stress baker and I did not have an apron!  Do you know how many shirts I’ve stained? I love it. Thank you.)

I started wrapping silverware for the hundreds we would serve at lunch. Then I was put on the serving line. My job was scooping asparagus. Very glamorous. I worked alongside a wonderful drag queen named Chris who joked with the people coming down the line. Chris lived in one of the many rat-infested apartments that dot Skid Row and when she recognized a friend or acquaintance she would cackle, “Girl, get over here and get some salad! You be needing it!” At the end of lunch she told me she might come back once a week in the afternoon to volunteer because it gave her something to do.  I had moved from the serving line to chopping Romaine hearts when I was stolen from the kitchen and moved to the education section of the complex.

In a pristine classroom I was introduced to the teacher “G Money” who was prepping a room full of adults for their GED tests.  Everybody was bent low over workbooks, which looked like… math books… Eeeekkkk Math Workbooks!  I wanted to climb the wall and hang from the ceiling hissing like a vampire who’s seen a cross.  Unpleasant.  Math is so unpleasant and if anything I needed to take a workbook, sit at a desk, and have someone teach me.  As it turned out I think I helped a number of students to wrong answers.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve had to do long equations or multiply/divide fractions. I have a calculator on my phone, which I kept busting out as the students whispered, “That’s cheating!”  “I know,” I would say, “I’m just checking the answer.”  Nope not checking the answer, getting the answer, but why argue over semantics.

It’s fortunate that I met William.  Hunched over a small storybook on one side of the room William, 40 something, was working on reading comprehension. William became my focus, which spared the math students. I sat down next to him and said, “Hey what are we working on?”  He had just read a short story and now was struggling to answer the corresponding study questions. “Cool,” I said, “read it to me.” He started to read and immediately the problem became clear.  As a new reader Will read the words so slowly that they no longer made sense in a phrase. I applied a little acting.  After he read a line I would say, “Okay, how would you say that?” He would repeat the line back to me at a normal speed.  If another character showed up in the story I took their dialogue and showed him how the sentence would sound in real life.  From afar I’m sure we looked like we were goofing off, but William started to plow through the questions. I can’t tell you how great it felt watching William speed up and start enjoying the story.  It was one of my greatest volunteer moments - no doubt.

I’ve been poor and lived at poverty level a couple of times in my life. It’s almost impossible to dig yourself out without help.  And it’s almost impossible to find help that’s not condescending or doesn’t require some kind of soul trade. The Midnight Mission offers schooling, temporary housing, counseling and medical services, a library, a barbershop, but most importantly it treats people with dignity.