Originally created 08/03/97

Helpers keep food bank alive



It looks like a grocery store exploded, and Rachel Meadows' charges are responsible for bringing order to the chaos.

Cans of soup, flattened butter containers and over-the-counter medications are jumbled in the boxes. Bottles of juice and boxes of toothpaste are spread across the counters. Pallets of sorted toiletries, drinks and food products are slowly taking shape.

It's a typical salvage procedure at Golden Harvest Food Bank, and the day's volunteers are busy sorting through donations under the watchful eye of Mrs. Meadows, the assistant reclamation supervisor.

Some are retirees, working steadily through the controlled chaos around them. Most are teen-age summer volunteers, with the quick energy and the limited attention span typical of their age. They dart from box to box, distracted by their companions, by visitors, by a bug in a box that means some of the donations will have to be thrown away.

Through all the distractions, the pile of products steadily and inexorably shrinks, sorted and cleaned and stacked for storage in the mammoth warehouse behind them.

"We have to have volunteers," said Pat Craig, Golden Harvest's volunteer coordinator. "We have 27,000 square feet of warehouse space filled with donations that are coming in and going out every day of the week. Twenty-two staff members just couldn't manage."

The food bank, founded in 1982 as the Greater Augusta Food Bank, has always relied on volunteers for the bulk of its work. Thousands of people each year pass through the doors of the Commerce Drive warehouse in Augusta and the Aiken distribution center on Enterprise Avenue on missions to collect, sort or distribute the groceries.

The invitation list for an August dinner honoring 1996 volunteers has topped 2,500, Mrs. Craig said. The list itself was compiled by volunteers: an employee of the Greater Augusta Chamber of Commerce, an 11-year-old girl, a resident at a Walton Rehabilitation Services group home who pauses in his data entry to talk about how the volunteer work also provides good job training.

"I am ready to go to work," explains 22-year-old Rob Finger, typing into a computerized keyboard that produces his words in a synthesized voice. "And I am trying to get my own place."

The volunteer work is good training for teen-agers looking for work experience, the Golden Harvest staff points out. Few teens mention that added bonus, however.

"I wanted to just help somebody, and it gives me something to do," said 17-year-old Terry Johnson, a member of the food bank's teen volunteer board. "Even though I do some hard work, I meet some great people."

Relying on volunteers means the food bank will lose much of its manpower when the summer's "volunteens" go back to school. Golden Harvest is always looking for volunteers and already relies on donors to collect and deliver groceries, because the food bank can't afford hauling costs, Mrs. Craig said.

"I just do it for the people - mostly the children," said Evans resident Lori Kist, who collects surplus groceries from five supermarkets in the area for the food bank. "I have three younger children, and I told them, `That could be us someday."'

She began the work about two years ago, after seeing workers tossing out food behind a grocery store. Images of the soup kitchen she passed every day - Golden Harvest's The Master's Table - instantly sprang to mind.

"I went in and asked if I could have the food for the soup kitchen," she said. "They told me, if I would bring my own bags and boxes, I could have whatever I wanted."

Other donations come from producers, distributors and processors. The labyrinthine shelves of the warehouse hold products as diverse as dried beans, canned soup, taco shells, cake mix, sodas, motor oil, cleaning solution. Giant refrigeration and freezer units store meat, milk, yogurt, ice cream.

"Food Lion's freezer section went out last week, and they called us and said `Come.' So we came and loaded up what we could," Mrs. Craig said with a laugh. "We get what we get. We have what we have. We trust the organizations that work with us to teach their clients how to use it nutritiously."

The food bank works with 410 organizations, from churches to soup kitchens to community centers, which distributes the groceries to individuals. By this time next year, Golden Harvest expects to distribute 50 million pounds of food through its 24-county area, Mrs. Craig said.

On an average day, the Augusta warehouse holds about 300,000 pounds of foodstuff, estimates shipping and receiving supervisor Ray Stokes.

The food bank also has started urging farmers to plant extra rows of crops dedicated for Golden Harvest use, and volunteers participated in the first gleaning of a pea crop last month at the Kling family farm in Jackson. A second picking session - berries at the Aldredge farm in Blythe - was rained out last week.

"It's a small way, a very small way, for me to do a Christian act," said Augusta resident Sue Alzheimer, who picked some of the purple-hull peas on the Kling farm, along with her three children. "It was fun for the kids, it only took a little time, and we got a lot out of it."

Mrs. Alzheimer started volunteering at The Master's Table through her church about four years ago, she said. Both she and Mrs. Kist said they thought it was important to involve their children in the volunteer activities.

"It shows the children that not everything out there has a price tag on it," Mrs. Kist said. "And it teaches you that everything you do could come back to you someday. Maybe someday you'll need help, and someone you lent a hand to will say `I remember when you helped me."'