Working the sandwich line

The group of teens I brought to the Cherry Street Food Bank. Or rather, they brought me. It was their idea.
The group of teens I brought to the Cherry Street Food Bank. Or rather, they brought me. It was their idea.

On a recent chilly Friday afternoon, I spent three hours outside handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at Northwest Harvest’s Cherry Street Food Bank in Seattle.

“Do you have turkey?”

“Do you have hot soup or coffee?”

“Do you have anything else?”

These were the types of questions I was asked over and over, and to everyone I had to say no.

I’ve always had trouble saying no. But having to say no to hungry men, women, teens and several children? This was saying no on a whole new scale.

It wasn’t like I had nothing to give. I had many milk crates filled to the brim with PB&J sandwiches — around 1,200 of them in all — made by devoted volunteers the day before. But I wanted to give the people who came through my line a menu of choices.

I wanted a Subway sandwich counter.

I wondered how often in their lives they’d been given a choice.

“Would you prefer white or wheat bread?” That was the only option I could offer, along with directing them to another table where they could take a pear, an apple and a bottle of water. If they didn’t want the lunch offering, clients could also choose to go through the food bank line for groceries, but most of that food required cooking facilities and wasn’t an option for those who lived on the street. Later, I noticed that a local market or café dropped off a whole selection of unsold or recently-expired prepared salads and sandwiches. The staff at Cherry Street offered these near the exit, in a couple of grocery carts. They were popular and went quickly.

food bank
The inside of the Cherry Street Food Bank. The day I worked there clients could choose the ready-made lunch outside, or go inside for a selection of groceries. Most of the inside items required cooking facilities.

Almost everyone said thank you. And to everyone, I offered a smile along with the sandwich while I kept this thought to myself: “Please don’t thank me. I didn’t make these sandwiches and this is my first time here. I haven’t done nearly enough to deserve your thanks.”

How many of these folks had I passed on the streets of Seattle and hardly given a second look? It’s easier to say no when we don’t have to look someone in the eye. That’s a requirement of volunteers with Northwest Harvest. So are smiles and it was simple to do. I wanted to make their day just a bit brighter. I wanted to give them more than a sandwich.

I greeted children and pets. I greeted mothers and Vietnam vets. I greeted teens close to my daughters’ ages and grandmothers not much older than I. I greeted drug addicts, physically disabled people and the mentally challenged. I did a little jig with one man who started dancing when he saw me jogging in place to stay warm on the unseasonably cool day (and adding steps to my Fitbit, the fancy pedometer I wear on my wrist that challenges me to 10,000 steps a day). I guess he thought I was dancing so he joined me and I felt our connected humanity. It was a fun moment that normally might have embarrassed my daughter, but when I looked over she was smiling, too.

I accepted each person’s gratitude on behalf of Northwest Harvest because while I don’t do enough, but they certainly do.

Cherry Street Food Bank is one of the busiest food banks in the state, serving over 5,000 people a week. Its owned and operated by Northwest Harvest, a phenomenal organization that distributes more than two million meals to more than 370 food banks and high-need schools in Washington each month — enough food to feed 30 stadiums worth of hungry people. That’s a good thing because a surprising one in seven people in Washington state struggle with hunger, and a shocking one in five children. We may be home to Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks and Boeing and a booming economy that has put more construction cranes than we can count downtown, but we are also one of only three states where poverty increased in 2013. We are the 22nd hungriest state in the country. Now that’s embarrassing, especially among such wealth.

Northwest Harvest asks no questions of the folks they serve and they charge nothing for the food they provide to partner programs across the state. In return, those organizations also must provide food freely to anyone who asks. No proof of hardship is ever needed.

I have my daughter to thank for the eye-opening experience. I’d contributed to plenty of food drives and dropped off a handful of home-cooked meals at shelters the last few years, but never had I worked face to face serving the people they benefit. My daughter and three classmates signed up to volunteer as part of a class assignment to make a documentary on poverty and homelessness. I was their driver and chaperone for the food bank and a few weeks earlier at Northwest Harvest’s distribution center southeast of Seattle, in Kent. Both operations are a hub of efficiency.

At the Kent facility, we were cogs in a well-oiled machine, bagging 2,850 pounds of red beans in less than two hours with a team of at least a dozen other volunteers. That was enough beans for 2,192 meals!

packing beans
Packing red beans at Northwest Harvest’s Western Washington food distribution center in Kent.

My daughter and her friends are now working on their documentary, editing together the interviews they conducted with the kind staff and volunteers at Northwest Harvest. They started at our house on Saturday night while filling themselves with a variety of foods — two types of pizza delivered to our door, chips and salsa, Mandarin oranges, sushi, soda and cake. Not exactly health food, but a feast to be sure. Did they notice the irony? I don’t know, but I sure did.

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