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A Trip to the San Francisco Food Bank
By Janis Cooke Newman
I'm standing with a group of screaming kids in the minus-4-degree chill of a giant meat freezer.
"Feel my legs!" shouts a first-grader who's still dressed in his soccer shorts.
"My nose is froze!" sings a second-grade girl whose braids are starting to stiffen into frozen branches.
"This isn't chilly at all," says my kindergarten son. The steam coming from his mouth hangs in the frigid air like the word balloons in a comic strip.
"Can we leave now?" asks one of the shivering moms. She's pulled the sleeves of her sweater over her hands and is trying to blow warm air into her face.
The giant freezer belongs to the San Francisco Food Bank, an organization that each year distributes 12 million pounds of food to hungry people in San Francisco. We've come here, a group of about 30 parents and kids, as part of Synergy School's Community Service project. Our purpose is to raise money for the school--friends and family pledge money for each hour of volunteer work we do--but I have an additional motive for subjecting myself and my 5-year-old to the frosty interior of the Food Bank's freezer. As we descend into what is referred to in our house as the Season of Greed, I want to make certain Alex understands that there's more to the holidays than whether Santa knows which Pokémon we'd like under our tree.
"I have just lost all feeling in my baby toes," says the mom with the sweater pulled over her hands. And Dave Vanden-broeke, the Food Bank's volunteer coordinator, finally lets us out of the freezer.
The next stop on our tour is the Food Bank's well-stocked, and considerably warmer, shopping floor.
"What makes the San Francisco Food Bank different," Dave tells us, "is that we let the agencies who feed the hungry choose what they want to serve."
Nearly 250 local agencies, including childcare programs, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens, shop at the Food Bank, helping themselves to cereal, soup, bread, and meat, all for only 14 cents a pound, a fee that helps the Food Bank cover expenses.
The kids stare in awe at a row of metal shelves crammed with every kind of cereal: Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Count Chocula. "By 6 p.m. tonight, every single box of this cereal will be gone," Dave tells them.
Then he leads us outside and makes us gather round a big dumpster.
"Nothing goes to waste here," Dave says. "Even the food that spoils is sent to a hog farm." He opens the dumpster's lid, revealing heads of rotten lettuce, browned bananas, and something green and unidentifiable. The kids climb up the sides to peer inside.
"Smells delicious," says one of the boys, taking a big sniff.
Mercifully, Dave drops the lid on the dumpster, and then takes us back inside to the isolation room, where out-of-date products and damaged cans are sorted out. This room is home to "Dave's Food Fossil Museum," a display that includes rusted cans of baking powder, instant mashed potatoes from companies no longer in existence, and a box of cornflakes whose cover features a photograph of Elizabeth Ward, Miss America 1982.
Next, Dave takes us to the warehouse, where floor-to-ceiling shelves hold pal-ettes of Hershey's chocolate syrup, apple juice, Saltines, and egg noodles. The place looks like a super-sized Costco. He leads us to several cardboard boxes the size of small above-ground swimming pools. Inside the boxes are more kiwis than I've seen over the course of my entire life.
"This...," says Dave, sweeping his arm across the enormous kiwi boxes like a game show host, "...is your job."
Our task is to sort through the kiwis, tossing the bad ones into a dumpster and restocking the rest into smaller boxes. We put on rubber surgical gloves to protect our hands, grab some plastic milk cartons to sit on, and start sorting.
Kiwi sorting turns out to be the perfect kid job. First of all, the kids are completely in love with the idea of being allowed to hurl fruit across the room. Secondly, no self-respecting kid would actually eat a kiwi.
"How do we tell if they're no good?" asks a dad, eyeing a suspicious-looking kiwi.
"If they're squoozing juice," his first-grade son tells him.
"See, this one's real mushy," says a girl with no front teeth. She gives the kiwi in her hand a squeeze, sending a greenish ooze down the sleeve of her Barbie sweatshirt.
When one of the kids gets bored, his dad blows up a surgical glove and turns it into a rooster head.
Amazingly, after a couple of hours, all the good kiwis are in boxes, the bad ones are in the dumpster, and every child smells like a fruit named after a flightless bird from New Zealand.
Later that night, as Alex is getting ready for bed, we talk about who might eat our kiwis.
"You mean these families don't have enough money for food?" he asks, pulling on his Superman pajamas.
"That's right," I tell him.
"Maybe we could give them some of my Halloween candy." I toss him a stuffed bear in a Giants uniform, thinking that perhaps now we can stop referring to this time of year as the Season of Greed.
"Hey, Mom?" Alex says, as I'm turning out the light.
"Are you sure you told Santa, Bulba-saurus?"
VOLUNTEERING WITH YOUR KIDS
There are lots of opportunities for parents and kids to volunteer all over San Francisco. Here are just a few of them.
The San Francisco Food Bank. Parents with their children, and kids 16 and over, can volunteer to work at the Food Bank's warehouse at 900 Pennsylvania Ave. on Potrero Hill. The Food Bank also needs people to help organize food drives. Contact Chris Sams at 415-282-1900 to volunteer. You can also find out more at www.sffoodbank.com.
PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support). PAWS is dedicated to helping people with AIDS keep their animal companions. Parents who volunteer with their children can spend Saturdays working in PAWS Noe Valley Pet Food Bank, located in Bethany Church at Clipper and Sanchez. They can also deliver pet food to clients, walk dogs, scoop litter boxes, and take pets to the vet. Kids can also run pet food drives in local supermarkets. To find out how you can help, call Tim Costigan at 415-241-1460. PAWS web site is www.pawssf.org.
Friends of the Urban Forest. Friends of the Urban Forest plants and maintains trees throughout the city. Children accompanied by their parents, and kids 14 and older, can volunteer to help plant trees on Saturday mornings. Contact Jeanette Hill at 415-561-6890, ext. 100, to volunteer. Find out about Friends of the Urban Forest events and tree plantings at www.fuf.net.
More Volunteer Opportunities
The Volunteer Center of San Francisco (VCSF) is a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities in the city. Whether you want to volunteer for AIDS, education, the homeless, or the environment, you can match your skills and interests with the right organization. Get information from the Volunteer Center's web site at www.vcsf.org, or call 415-982-8999, TDD 415-982-4663. The Volunteer Center also puts out the excellent "Guide to Youth Volunteer Opportunities," which lists organizations where kids 10 and up can volunteer on their own. Call to get a free copy.
A Word of Caution
Bear in mind that most of the organizations where you'll be volunteering are not child-proofed. Be sure to keep on eye on younger children while working.