I Volunteered At 200 Food Banks Across The U.S. Here’s What I Learned About Hunger In America.

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In 2012, I was laid off from a job that I loved. Thanks to the generosity of a family friend in a city a few hours north, I was able to relocate and start over. It was hard. I was lonely, couldn’t find a job, and struggled to find a place in my adopted community. Still, I had savings, I had shelter, I had food.

Not everyone is so fortunate.

Isolated and depressed, I embarked on an eight-month road trip across the U.S. to clear my head and find a sense of direction. When I returned, I knew what I wanted: joy, purpose, and a connection to community.

Years earlier, I’d found joy as a volunteer, if a sporadic one, at the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida. So, in late 2013, after moving to Orlando, I registered for an information session at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, near my new home in Orlando.

That info session changed everything.

I soon became a regular volunteer, logging as many hours as possible. I learned how one misfortune — like losing your job — can have dire consequences for an individual or family. I learned that there are 40 million hungry people in this country, 12 million of whom are children. I realized I had no understanding of the prevalence of hunger in my community and across the U.S.

Second Harvest is one of Feeding America’s nationwide network of 200 food banks. Deeply affected by what I saw in the Orlando area, I wanted to see more, to do more, to help more. I wanted to visit every one of those food banks and learn what Americans from the Southeast to the Northwest were facing.

So, I set a goal to road-trip across the country, running a marathon in all 50 states (I’d later up it to 100 marathons), volunteering at each of the 200 Feeding America food banks, and visiting friends and family as I went.

I set out in July 2014. I ran my 100th marathon last month and volunteered at my 200th food bank on April 11. Am I done? Not even close. Not while there are millions of hungry Americans. Not when there is more that I — that we all — can do.

Here’s how I did it, what I learned, and why I feel so determined to continue.

The author at Feeding Palm Beach County. The food bank had just received a massive donation of potatoes to be sorted and packaged by volunteers into family-friendly bags.

The right time to get involved is anytime that feels right.

You might think that after losing my job and not being able to find a new one, I would be my own top-priority charity case. Rather, being unmoored gave me the freedom to act, and provided me the clarity and the drive to do so. I had savings — and nothing but free time — and relocating had already forced me to downsize significantly. Since my friend was charging me very little to stay at his apartment, I was able to maintain a home base as I traveled.

I packed up my blue 2007 Subaru Forester with clothes, running gear, cleaning and laundry supplies, food and toiletries. I’m constantly amazed at how little one realistically needs to live comfortably on the road.

Most nights I parked at Walmarts, truck stops or campgrounds and slept in the car, on a small sleeping bag I kept rolled out across the folded-down back seats. Occasionally I’d sleep on a friend’s sofa, or spring for a hostel or cheap Airbnb if the weather was inclement.

My beloved Forester finally gave out last year, after 269,000 miles. I bought a gold 2014 Toyota Sienna. It was a major expense I was not planning for (plus, I was really hoping to finish the challenge in my old car!), but on the positive side, the minivan has more room — especially for sleeping!

My preconceived notions of the face of poverty and food insecurity were flat-out wrong.

Before working in food banks, I pretty much assumed that the people who required food assistance were mostly homeless old men, possibly with mental health issues. But I learned that in addition to large sections of society who may be unable to work, such as the disabled, seniors and veterans, we have millions of working poor. People working full-time jobs who are unable to make ends meet. We have college kids, especially first-generation students of color in junior colleges, trying to better their futures and unable to afford food because of the rising costs of school, books, and housing. And children, so many children, who often can only rely on the meals provided at school.

My volunteer shifts included inspecting perishable and nonperishable food for safety, and distributing food via mobile food pantries and programs to serve people who are unable to travel to the food bank.

Food boxes assembled as part of the USDA’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program provide healthy food to low-income elderly people.

I repackaged large blocks of donated cheese into family-friendly portions at a food bank in Southern Wisconsin — food that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill. One of my favorite recent experiences was delivering food to housebound seniors for the Food Bank of Northeast Louisiana. Besides delivering food, I was able to provide companionship for a short while. Having experienced isolation and loneliness, I am so grateful to be able to provide company to seniors who may not get regular visitors, if any.

The food system is so much more complicated — and wasteful — than I realized.

For those of us with easy access to grocery stores and farmers markets, getting food is practically automatic. But millions of Americans lack access to healthy, nutritious food. And this is not only caused by lack of food availability — like if there is no supermarket selling fresh produce in your neighborhood — but also lack of transportation. How is someone dealing with mobility issues, or the primary caregiver of small children, supposed to haul heavy loads of food while navigating public transportation? In 2015, during a mobile food and produce distribution on New York’s Long Island, I helped a senior veteran hoist his duffle bag full of food onto his back, because he needed to catch a bus. The bag easily weighed over 50 pounds.

I did not realize the massive undertaking required to grow, harvest, manufacture and move food through a country as enormous as the United States — and how much of that food goes to waste as a result.

I did not realize the massive undertaking required to grow, harvest, manufacture and move food through a country as enormous as the United States — and how much of that food goes to waste as a result. According to ReFED, 72 billion pounds of food is wasted each year in the U.S. — good, healthy food that could go to people in need. Feeding America rescues 3.5 billion pounds of food annually by partnering with grocery stores, restaurants and high-profile events like the Super Bowl. They have relationships with farmers, receiving donations by the truckload of fresh produce that would have ended up in a landfill because it was a surplus crop or for superficial, aesthetic reasons. Being part of this amazing system that rescues, sorts, packs and transports rescued food and produce to hungry people opened my eyes to how broken our system is when it comes to hunger.

I experienced a microcosm of this on the road, unable to cook and lacking proper refrigeration. Striving to maintain a whole food, plant-based diet was tough. To prevent food waste, I tried to buy only what I was going to eat in the next day or so. Hotter climates were particularly challenging.  

Being on the road was eye-opening and rewarding, but it was also personally challenging.

I found the trip to be hard on my mind and my body in ways I didn’t expect. Because I was also running a lot — including completing one 100-mile race — I did a number on my body. I suffered two major injuries that laid me up for months. Both times I was on opposite ends of the country and had to limp back to Florida to recover.

Although I was meeting people everywhere I went, loneliness was an issue. I often longed to have a travel companion to share volunteering, running, and sightseeing with. It was hard for me to date. Sparking with someone, only to see the interest fade from their eyes when I talk about my journey, was disheartening. Leaving an area after connecting with so many incredible fellow volunteers and food bank staffers was always difficult. I’ve kept in touch with many, and I’m so grateful to have them in my life.

And on top of all that, I didn’t think the challenge would take this long! Originally, I planned two full years. Two turned into four. Four turned into five. I didn’t take on corporate sponsors or other funding sources, so I had to budget very carefully to make sure my savings lasted — even through buying a new car. 

Hunger is everywhere. But we can stop it.

Hunger exists in your neighborhood. At your workplace. In cities and in the countryside.

Hunger in our communities is the ultimate litmus test of how well we are taking care of our most vulnerable: children, the elderly, veterans, the working poor. So many of society’s ills can be traced back to food justice. Think of the rising costs of health care to treat preventable diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, which exist far too prevalently in underserved communities, where nutritious food and dietary guidance is hard to come by. How can we give our kids the best chance at quality education if they aren’t provided quality nutrition? Healthy and nutritious food ensures that all of us age well and maintain independence.

We can all make a difference — and you don’t have to volunteer at 200 food banks to do it. Start by finding your local food bank and donate time or food. Set up a lemonade stand with your kids and donate the proceeds to your local food bank. Set up a Facebook Fundraiser with Feeding America and raise money ― and awareness of hunger ― among your social group. 

Every bit of effort, every dollar helps. (A $1 donation to Feeding America provides 10 meals for people in need.) But we’re not going to charity our way out of this problem. This goes beyond feeding people. Systemic issues must be addressed if we are going to eradicate hunger and poverty. Effective policy is mandatory.  

I believe strongly that we should feed all school kids, regardless of income. Public school, private school, home school, magnet school, GED. All of them. I also believe we should pay people a living wage. No one working a full-time job should be forced to choose between life’s necessities: rent or food? Do I eat today, or do I pay my electric bill?

I haven’t stopped volunteering — and I won’t ever stop giving my time and my voice to the fight to eradicate hunger in the U.S. There’s so much work to be done. But that’s what fuels me to keep going.

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