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How to Volunteer at Food Banks Safely During COVID-19

Amy Bergen

food bank volunteers loading food off of a truck

Food insecurity is one of many problems the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated, and food banks need your help. Donating money or nonperishable food items is one of the best and most direct ways to get involved. But if you’re willing and able to lend a (clean and sanitized) hand in other ways, resource centers across the U.S. are getting creative to meet their clients’ needs.

How food banks’ needs have changed

Especially in areas hit hard by the virus, food banks face a paradox—they’re busier than ever, but they’re losing volunteers as people stick close to home. Each resource center or kitchen will operate differently, but here are some changes you might notice.

Contact-free donations. Before you send groceries, check the center’s website or give them a call to find out what their protocol is for drop-offs.

A need for drivers. Much like restaurants, some food banks are setting up contactless deliveries to clients at home. They may need drivers, especially those who can provide their own vehicles with ample storage space.

Volunteer screenings. Facilities want their staff members in good health, particularly since they serve vulnerable populations. There may be restrictions on accepting new volunteers, and increased safety measures such as checking temperatures before entry.

Protect yourself and others on site

With resource centers still humming along, in-person workers are essential whether they’re packing distribution boxes, sorting donations, serving meals, or cleaning and sanitizing.

Expect some new safety measures if you choose to volunteer in person. You’ll almost certainly need to wear a mask on site, so be prepared to bring your own. The site may be rearranged to make sure everyone can keep a physical distance of at least six feet from one another. This means you won’t be able to engage with clients or other volunteers the way you ordinarily would.

Food banks that are continuing in-person meal service might have strict limits on dining room capacity, or stagger their meal shifts so clients can come in at different times. They’ll need volunteers who can adapt to the changes; if you have schedule flexibility, for instance, you could take a sparsely populated early or late shift.

Get involved from home

You can still join your food bank’s team if you’re sheltering in place. Financial donations are a pressing need for most centers, and they’ll appreciate anything you’re able to contribute.

For a community-building activity, try starting a virtual fundraiser; some facilities are encouraging remote group involvement. The Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina invites volunteers to run their own Virtual Food Drive (this could be a friendly workplace team effort).

Raising awareness of the organization’s mission and needs is important work too. At the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma you can sign up to be a Virtual Volunteer, which involves regularly posting and sharing food bank-related content on your social media profiles—"Instagram influencing" for a cause. Even following your local food bank on social media platforms will keep you in the loop, since this is where they may post calls for volunteers and resources.

Some centers might need remote volunteers to pitch in with unglamorous but necessary administrative work, like data entry and donor thank-you letters.

Keep in mind your local food resource center’s practices may change as the pandemic evolves, which means their volunteer needs will change as well. Many industries are figuring out the "new normal" as they go along, and flexibility and compassion will go a long way.

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Looking for a food bank near you—or a distant one that accepts remote volunteers? Search for organizations at Idealist.org.

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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