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Volunteering Your Talent

Social Media Avengers

The question came in October.

“Would you be interested in joining a ‘social media avengers-type’ of volunteer group that would use your social media connections to raise awareness about the Foodbank?”

The proposal arrived via Twitter DM and email from Bethany Prange, communications coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

My answer?

“No, I want to join a volunteer group actually called the Social Media Avengers!”

Volunteering for a good cause + social media + awesome superhero name?

I’m in.

The St. Louis Area Foodbank does amazing work in the St. Louis area. The need is staggering, and so is the effort they put forth.

One thing I know from experience: it is very difficult to run a nonprofit. There is never enough money, time or resources to do all the good you want to do, and that can weigh heavily on both the employees of the organization and the people they serve.

Nonprofits like the Foodbank need our help in so many ways: donations, on-site volunteers, great board members, dedicated employees, corporate support, and the list goes on. So what can one person do to help?

In my case, the answer was social media.

As a well-known new media strategist based here in St. Louis, I try to support all things local via my Twitter account and my blog. http://www.rizzotees.com/blog/about-chris-reimer

Bethany had likely noticed this, and instead of hoping I’d continue to retweet them, she reached out and made the ask. She told me of her plan to create a group of people like me (heavy users of social media) to help raise awareness and visibility of the Foodbank.

I can’t tell you how good it felt to be asked to help.

Within a few weeks, a group of us gathered at the Foodbank in Bridgeton. We determined our strengths, defined our mission and named ourselves the Social Media Avengers.

True, we are avenging nothing. But it does sound very cool.

Each member of the group brings their own unique talent to the table, whether it be blogging, marketing knowledge, Twitter prowess, networking skills or event planning.

Although social media is in our name, the concept isn’t just to have a group of social media mavens retweeting every time the Foodbank updates their status.

The Foodbank folks hope to build a team of creative individuals from various fields within the community. The idea is that these volunteers will tap into their knowledge, networks and talents to find new and better ways to increase hunger awareness, and ultimately, help provide more food for families in need.

The beauty of volunteering in this way is that you are contributing to a good cause from your own area of strength. And therefore, you can make a big difference in a short amount of time.

Frankly, I don’t do enough volunteering. Lack of time, focus on job and family – I have all the normal excuses. So I’m trying to find a way to help.

That’s my challenge to you. Find a way to help.

Whatever touches you in life, whether it be hunger, autism, cancer or animal abuse – start chipping away at the problem now. Once you realize that giving is what really fills up your cup in life, you will find a way to help the human race and you’ll feel more fulfilled and happy than you ever thought possible.

If you would like to join our group, contact Bethany at bprange@stlfoodbank.org or on Twitter – @stlfoodbank.

    Chris Reimer is the Vice President of Social Media at Falk Harrison.  Find him on Twitter – @RizzoTees

Facilitators Of Gratitude

Sharea Rodgers shakes hands with Foodbank volunteer Ron Banister / Photo by Bethany Prange

When one hears the term “fundraising”, they may automatically think of dollars and cents.

But to me, fundraising and development at a nonprofit means much more than generating revenue to support hunger relief.

Part of our role as good stewards for our donors and supporters is to represent our organization in an open and engaging way. We share honest, compelling stories of the individuals we serve so that the public at large will understand our mission. We also work to maintain the trust of our donors by providing food assistance to those in need in the most efficient and prudent manner possible.

But above all, our task is to serve as “facilitators of gratitude.”

Last month, I attended the St. Louis Business Journal Women’s Conference. I was pleased to hear positive feedback and see the facial expressions on individuals who were familiar with the St. Louis Area Foodbank. Many of the attendees were very complimentary of the services we provide to the community.  Several individuals thanked me for the services the Foodbank provides for those struggling with hunger, while others said they had conducted food drives benefiting the Foodbank or volunteered their time to our programs.

Prior to the conference, I was already proud to be associated with the Foodbank.  As part of the development team and Foodbank staff, I have witnessed firsthand the impact of providing a meal to people in need.  Recipients of the food are very grateful for the assistance.  In fact, their comments include “thank you for the work you do!” and “I don’t know what I would do without your help.”
It is my job to pass that immense gratitude on to the donors, volunteers and supporters who make our work possible.

Like the clients receiving food assistance, we are grateful to our donors for financial support, volunteer service and overall generosity.  You continue to give through:
• Volunteer Service
• Annual Campaigns
• Special Events
• Planned Giving
• Direct Mail
• Matching Gifts
• Honor/Memorial/Tribute Gifts
• Community and Corporate Food Drives

I speak with donors on a daily basis who constantly thank us for the work we do.  Often, they express just as much gratitude for the Foodbank’s work as the clients themselves.

Hearing encouraging words, such as “thank you,” humbles and drives us to continue to work hard to earn the donors’ trust and to properly acknowledge their generosity by providing nutritional food to as many people in need as possible.

During FY11, your generosity enabled us to:

• Distribute 25 million pounds of food

• Provide 20.4 million meals

So, as donors express their gratitude to us for the services we provide, we in turn express our “thank you” to you, our volunteers, our supporters and clients. Without your help, many people would not be able to feed their families.

Thank you for your trust and support.

    Sharea Rodgers is a development coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank

Wishing Upon A Croonchy Star

The St. Louis Area Foodbank’s Most Interesting Food Donations Wall of Fame / Photo by Bethany Prange

Remember the Swedish Chef from the Muppets?

Apparently that guy had his own cereal in the 1980s.

It was called Croonchy Stars. The bright orange box says funny stuff like “it’s cinnamonnamony” and “no artificial colors; no doorknobs.”

Awesome is the only word for it.

So how do we Foodbankers know so much about this 1980s cereal, you ask?

Well, we are the proud owners of our very own 1989 box of Croonchy Stars.

The Croonchy Stars sits on our Most Interesting Food Donations Wall of Fame. The Stars made the wall not just because of the Swedish Chef’s cool factor, but also because we got that 1989 box of cereal from a food drive in 2011 – a wee bit past when it would be safe to eat it.

Trish Jenner, one of our volunteer coordinators here at the St. Louis Area Foodbank, has been collecting a few of the most unique – and oldest – items donated in food drives.

Now, do not get us wrong. We are grateful for every single item donated to our families in need. Foodbank staff and volunteers work hard every day to make sure that the donated food we receive is sorted and repackaged.

Every piece of food that meets food safety guidelines – and most of our donations do – gets eaten by someone who needs it.

However, once in awhile, we stumble across a food drive item that has been in the back of someone’s pantry a wee bit too long. For example, the Croonchy Stars share space on the Wall of Fame with a can of Campbell’s Creamy Spinach Soup from 1988.

While that can of soup was also a recent donation, we still appreciate the effort and the generosity of the donor.  We realize that may have been all they had to give.

So why, then, do we keep our Wall of Fame findings?

Well, first, because they are fascinating. The Green Giant Kidney Beans and Freshlike Corn cans from the mid-1990s look almost as new as if you’d bought them yesterday!

And second, because humor is good for the soul. Take the can marked simply, “chicken” from 1995. It’s an entire, one-pound, ready-to-eat, boneless chicken in a can.

So. Many. Questions.

    Bethany Prange is the communications coordinator for the St. Louis Area Foodbank

 

Delivering The Veggies – Produce Row

Produce Row in St. Louis Photo by Shannon O’ Connor

As children, we learned about the importance of eating enough of each of the food groups – meat, grains, dairy, vegetables and fruit.

Now, in my role as the product sourcing coordinator for the St. Louis Area Foodbank, that basic lesson is even more valuable – particularly since it is my job to bring in food for families in need.

My department works daily to solicit food donations from several sources: federal (USDA) commodities; local retail stores such as Walmart or Target; national manufacturers such as Kraft Foods; and of course, individual food drives.

From these sources, we strive to bring in a balance of bread, meat, dairy products and fresh produce.

But while each food group is essential for well-rounded nutrition, veggies and fruits get the gold star!  Fresh fruits and vegetables are one of the most overlooked categories of food, yet the most beneficial to the human body for energy and good health.

Fortunately, St. Louis is blessed to have an outstanding produce market right in our backyard – Produce Row.

Produce Row was established in St. Louis nearly 60 years ago, alongside our mighty Mississippi River.

This massive market includes 20 different business-to-business food service companies that receive produce from local farmers, as well as farms across the country.   The fresh vegetables and fruit they receive are distributed to local restaurants, grocers and educational institutions.

 

The St. Louis Area Foodbank has had the honor over the last several years to partner with some of these businesses.  The donations may include any produce items that fall into these categories:

  • Bulk
  • Discontinued
  • Low weight
  • Close-to-code
  • Off spec
  • Make-ready

In this fast-paced, 24-7 operation, it is crucial that the businesses maintain strict guidelines. They must keep their product fresh and sellable according to warehouse space, availability and product shelf life.

If there are items that do not meet these guidelines – such as imperfectly-shaped fruit – the Foodbank can distribute this food immediately to our families in need so it can be eaten instead of thrown in the trash.

Over the last two years, I have had the good fortune to meet and work with the team at Sunfarm Foodservice #84 Produce Row, one of the largest businesses in the market.

Sunfarm landed their spot on Produce Row in 1991 and have been serving the area with their remarkable products ever since.   As one of our weekly local donors, they supply the Foodbank with any items that are obtainable for donation after their inventory check.

Last year, Sunfarm donated over 35,000 pounds to our organization. In just the first two months of this year, they have donated nearly 10,000 pounds of fresh produce to the Foodbank.

This week I visited Sunfarm at Produce Row as one of our Foodbank drivers, Dale Vandeven, made a produce pick up. This visit gave me the chance to gain further insight on what exactly made Sunfarm stand out from the rest.

As Dale loaded the truck with our pallet of bananas, lettuce and tomatoes, I made my usual rounds of “hellos” to the familiar and friendly faces in the warehouse.

Sunfarm President John Pollaci explained that their operation does far more than deliver basic produce to restaurants.

“Our client list runs anywhere from your neighborhood eatery or café to your finest restaurant and country club,” Pollaci says.  “We have the greatest accounts with fine dining services, which encompass our high quality products.  We also handle accounts with area schools and have recently established a fresh fruit and vegetable snack program with 15 St. Louis public schools.”

“We represent a business with expertise in specialty items,” says Anthony Parrino, warehouse associate.  “We carry items from imported white asparagus to Daikon sprouts to edible orchids and anything in between.  Some of the most rich and resourceful produce you will see comes from our facility.”

Sunfarm Foodservice provides their clients, the Foodbank and our community with a professional and supportive partnership that I hope will only continue to prosper.  Special thanks to all of our donors in the Foodbank network who contribute to the operation and success of our organization and its goal to feed hungry people.

    Shannon O’Connor is the product sourcing coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

Volunteer Stories: Leader of the Pack

Jeremy Andert volunteering at the St. Louis Area Foodbank /  Photo by Bethany Prange

 When Jeremy Andert first began volunteering at the St. Louis Area Foodbank in August, he was shy and withdrawn. He rarely uttered a word.

Now, almost six months later, Jeremy practically runs the show! He charms the other volunteers with his beaming smile, and keeps them entertained with his stories.

He’s a pro at sorting food and packing boxes for families in need. At the end of the volunteer shift, Jeremy even reads the accomplishments for the day to the entire group.

He considers it his job to rally the troops and get the other volunteers excited about the families they’ve helped. After all, one of the Foodbank’s volunteer coordinators, Trish Jenner, even named him honorary Volunteer Leader.

She gave him a black hat that has his new title embroidered on the front.

“It has my name on the back!” Jeremy says proudly. “They gave it to me December 23. I’m lucky!”

Jeremy, 24, comes to the Foodbank through St. Louis ARC, and his work here helps him learn basic job and life skills.

Jeremy says he likes to volunteer because when he’s here he makes new friends. He volunteers at the Foodbank on Thursdays and Fridays, and at KidSmart on Tuesdays.

    Trish Jenner is a volunteer coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank

    William Amos is a volunteer coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank

The Federal Role in Feeding the Hungry

Volunteers pack a CSFP box at the St. Louis Area Foodbank / Photo by Bethany Prange

It’s a question that often prompts debate.

“Should government have a role in helping families in need?”

The St. Louis Area Foodbank is blessed to receive support from a variety of sources.

The local community offers tremendous support through financial gifts and food donations. Whether it is an individual who hosts a food drive, a small business owner who writes us a $50 check, or a local retail store who donates a truckload of food, the Foodbank relies on the generosity of our community to help fight hunger.

The local donations are supplemented by the millions of pounds of food contributed annually by the national food industry. Major players like ConAgra, Kellogg’s and Kraft donate product to us on a fairly regular basis. Their generosity goes a long way in helping us fulfill our mission to feed hungry people.

Unfortunately, it is still simply not enough to meet the nutritional needs of the families we serve.

That’s where USDA programs like The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) come into play. USDA commodities play an integral role in hunger relief throughout the country.

In our service territory alone, federal product represents about 40% of the St. Louis Area Foodbank’s annual distribution – nearly 9.7 million pounds.

Moreover, it is often the most nutritious product we receive. Items such as peanut butter, beef stew and canned fruits and vegetables help provide a balanced nutritional mix to the families we serve. Through these federal programs, our families are given access to food items which aren’t always easily accessible through food drives, such as frozen meats and dairy.

Children represent the largest segment of the population in need. The Foodbank provides food to more than 101,000 children a year, according to the Feeding America 2010 Hunger Study.

http://feedingamerica.issuelab.org/research/listing/hunger_in_america_2010_local_report_prepared_for_the_st_louis_area_foodbank

Our ability to ensure kids in need receive adequate nutrition – particularly during their most vulnerable years – is largely due to our participation in the TEFAP program.

Adults over the age of 65 represent another significant portion of the population in need. Our involvement in CSFP makes it possible for the Foodbank to deliver a box of food to more than 8,500 low-income seniors each month.

Many of these individuals rely on costly medication to help sustain quality of life. We hear from many of these seniors in need that they face the daily decision of having to choose medicine or meals. CSFP is an important program that helps make that decision a little less stressful.

Food is our most basic need. The types of food and quantities we consume have an impact on our overall wellbeing – whether we’re 8 or 80.

While discussions on the government’s role in helping those in need will most likely continue for decades to follow, we’re sure you will agree that when it comes to feeding our most vulnerable citizens, there simply is no debate.

 Matt Dace is senior vice president of the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

Rachel’s Challenge – Learning To Work Together

Seventh graders from Holman Middle School prepare CSFP boxes / Photo by Bethany Prange

Shouts of pre-teen voices and the squeals of rubber-soled sneakers on concrete blasted through the silence. Empty cardboard boxes and plastic wrap flew around the room like a mini tornado.

Brightly-colored Aeropostle t-shirts and Abercrombie hoodies blur together in a frantic rainbow.

Then, in a flurry of coins and quick fingers, the vending machine was cleaned out of candy and soda.

Gremlins? Nope.

It’s just the raw energy and enthusiasm of more than 200 seventh graders.

Over the course of two weeks in late January, the entire seventh grade class from Holman Middle School in the Pattonville School District converged on the Volunteer Center at St. Louis Area Foodbank.

For three hours straight on several days, the students relied on the full force of their youthful enthusiasm to pack box after box of  pasta, rice, beans and beef stew for families in need. And as they packed, they learned a few lessons about compassion and working together to help others.

“The seventh graders are here today as part of Rachel’s Challenge,” says Rita Rutledge, a social studies teacher and department chairperson at Holman. “Our school has adopted the Rachel’s Challenge philosophy and we chose this week because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”

Rachel’s Challenge was started by the family of Rachel Scott, the first person killed at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Her acts of kindness and compassion coupled with the contents of her six diaries have become the foundation “for one of the most life-changing school programs in America,” according to the Rachel’s Challenge website.

“They had found a bunch of her writings and she had talked about being kind to others and never bullying people,” Rutledge says. “They challenge the students to be nice to others and to never bully others.”

The mission of Rachel’s Challenge is to: “create a permanent positive culture change in their school, business and community by starting a chain reaction of kindness and compassion.”

http://www.rachelschallenge.org/LearnMore/OurMission.php

“I think volunteering here gives the kids a sense of doing things for others without monetary reward,” Rutledge says. “I think the kids realize that being kind is something we should do in our daily life. Hopefully we are fostering a lifelong belief of working for your community.”

Holman Middle School is participating in Rachel’s Challenge throughout the year, and volunteering at the Foodbank is just part of their commitment. They chose to do their community service day at the Foodbank because a small group of students had previously volunteered here on the 9/11 day of service.

Rutledge said the students had such a positive experience at the Foodbank, she wanted to bring the entire class back.

    Bethany Prange is the communications coordinator at The St. Louis Area Foodbank.