December 20, 2016 – Just one road, a quiet stretch of Northeast 33rd Avenue rolling up to the Columbia, leads to Oregon Food Bank headquarters. But for hundreds of food bank volunteers, providing thousands of vital hours of their time, there are many paths to getting there.
When she was growing up in China, Wen-ying Wu remembers, “My parents taught me, when you have enough for yourself, it’s important to take care of others.”
Decades and thousands of miles later, now that Wu is a business consultant at Kaiser Permanente, she spends Saturday mornings working in the vegetable garden next to Oregon Food Bank headquarters.
“After the first shift, I was hooked,” she explains, her voice glowing. “After a long week in the office, there’s nothing like digging in the dirt.” Watching something grow, Wu explains, can be magical. Digging for potatoes is “like a treasure hunt.”
And for a native of Hunan, a province with a legendary spicy cuisine, there was something warming about the discovery that if you let jalapeno peppers ripen from green to red, they just get hotter.
But her experience is as much about people as about nature. Wu enjoys when classes come to visit, and recalls an elementary school student learning that a cherry tomato just picked off the vine tastes different from the ones his family bought in the store. His discovery: “I think I like tomatoes.”
Working in the garden, Wu has learned, “You form a lot of really strong friendships.” Every year for her birthday party, she brings 15 or 20 friends to work in the garden. People look forward to the celebration. “You’ve got to love that,” she explains. “You’re in the dirt.”
Doug Phillips knows just how he began spending his Thursday evenings repacking groceries at the food bank. Ten years ago he got divorced and “I found myself with an excess of time on my hands.”
His explanation of why he still packs food every week – and why he also volunteers at the Oregon Food Bank’s major fund-raiser, the July 4 weekend Blues Festival – is equally direct. “I get more out of it than I put into it,” he says with absolute certainty – and not just because “It’s cheaper than a gym membership.”
An evening working with donated produce, canned goods and government commodities has another ingredient: “Mostly, it’s about the people.”
Phillips, who works in information security at U.S. Bank, looks forward to seeing the regulars who come in Thursday evenings. He also likes meeting the other people he encounters working at the food bank, including those who may have their own hunger issues. “For a lot of folks,” he says, a little quietly, “that’s really eye-opening. It’s not that we don’t have enough food. People can’t afford the food.”
Because of that reality, Phillips supports and admires the food bank’s advocacy on public policy. The target in Oregon Food Bank’s mission statement, he quotes, is not only hunger but the causes of hunger.
At Oregon Food Bank, the effects of volunteerism spread widely and invisibly, like the roots of zucchini plants. Just as volunteers get more out of the experience than they expect, so does the food bank. Volunteers bolster each others’ commitment and bring in their friends. Each volunteer is not just a food packer or a potato grower, but an understanding and a voice going out into society, carrying the message that hunger exists in Oregon, and that there are lots of ways to do something about it.
Or just that no one should be hungry.
“The things that my parents taught me as a young person now make sense,” says Wen-ying. “I want to feed my community.”
Oregon Food Bank welcomes David Sarasohn as an occasional contributor on topical issues.