On a chilly Friday morning in March, before the sun rises, activity begins to stir at Thurston County Food Bank’s Client Services Center in downtown Olympia. Staff drivers depart the Center at 6 am to begin their Food Rescue routes, collecting donated food from local businesses. Volunteers begin to trickle in by 7:30. Families in need begin to arrive shortly thereafter. Volunteer Coordinator Jen Butti warmly greets volunteers and gives the day’s instructions. “Running just one shift at the Food Bank takes 35 to 40 volunteers,” states Butti. “We couldn’t possibly process all the donations and provide services to so many households if it weren’t for their help.”
A fresh food bounty
By 8:00, the Center is bustling with activity—volunteers jump into the morning’s work: they stock shelves, refrigerators, and freezers with all the types of food normally seen at a supermarket. Canned or boxed items are readily available on the Center’s shelves, but, contrary to what one might expect at a food bank, the large majority of the space and volunteer labor is dedicated to sorting and stocking fresh and frozen foods.
Bulk bags of rice and seasoned meat from Chipotle are transformed into burritos, with the help of donated cheese and salsa.
The availability and abundance of fresh food at TCFB is due to a community partnership around Food Rescue in Thurston County, which over the past eight years has involved a great deal of dedication, planning, and funding from many organizations. In 2012, The Washington State Department of Ecology and Thurston County Solid Waste launched an initiative that gave non-profit organizations an opportunity to apply for funding to purchase supplies and equipment, or to make renovations that would make it possible for them to prevent good food from ending up in the landfill.
A fruitful collaboration brought more options
This initiative created an opportunity for the Thurston community to proactively work toward two related goals: keeping good food from going into the landfill, and preventing families from finding themselves without enough nutritious food to eat. Through this grant, Thurston County Food Bank (TCFB) was able to remodel an unusable area of its building and install a certified food re-pack kitchen and professional foodservice equipment. TCFB was also able to purchase a refrigerated van to pick up surplus food from new donors, which, due to the new kitchen, could now include restaurants and caterers instead of just grocery stores. In the following years TCFB and other hunger relief organizations in the community continued to expand their Food Rescue work.
The pleasure of seeing good food put to good use
Carol Vannerson, a longtime volunteer, uses a pallet jack to pull a large pallet of rescued produce into a sorting area near the back of the building. Peeking through the top of the boxes, one can catch a glimpse of a variety of fruits and vegetables, from salad mixes to bell peppers to strawberries. “I can see from the packaging that these items came from Costco, Safeway and Fred Meyer,” shares Vannerson. “I’m passionate about displaying fresh produce for our clients to choose from. I’ve also volunteered as a food rescue driver and have been able to interact with staff at our local grocery stores. Store workers enjoy donating all this good food. They love knowing that it will go to good use, helping people in need.”
It’s a rescue restaurant!
In the back of the building, even more activities take place. Volunteers work away in the Food Rescue kitchen, where they re-pack unserved, surplus foods from restaurants, caterers, and school districts. Bulk bags of rice and seasoned meat from Chipotle are transformed into burritos, with the help of donated cheese and salsa. Trays of burgers, pizza, and potatoes from schools in the Olympia, North Thurston, and Tumwater School districts are re-packed into family-size portions. Volunteers transport these attractively re-packed meal items out to the shopping floor, where they are stocked into Food Rescue coolers for clients to choose from.
It’s still early when the doors open
This flurry of stocking, organizing, and re-packing goes on for just a couple of short hours, until the center is ready to open for service. Clients go through a quick and easy check-in process at the front office (no income guidelines or other qualifications are required to access TCFB services). They are then ready to “shop.” As clients move through the center, they are greeted by friendly volunteers, and have the opportunity to select their own groceries along the way— options include frozen meat or vegetarian protein items, shelf stable goods, breads and pastries, dairy and deli items, and a bounty of fresh produce. When clients complete their food bank visit and walk out the door with their shopping cart, it is overflowing with good food.
Thurston Food Rescue is a coalition made up of feeding programs throughout Thurston County. In 2018, Thurston County Food Bank rescued 2.2 million pounds of wholesome food and redirected it to families in need. If you would like to help rescue food at the Thurston County Food Bank or at another organization associated with Thurston Food Rescue, visit—www.thurstonfoodrescue.com. Rescuing food from feeding landfills to feeding people is fun, easy, and rewarding.