Gloved hands prepare miniature pumpkin pies laid out on a sheet
Gloved hands prepare pumpkin pies at St. Anthony's Dining Room in San Francisco (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Can I Volunteer at a Food Bank During COVID-19?

Can I Volunteer at a Food Bank During COVID-19?

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Volunteer opportunities are one way that many folks aim to give back and help their community during the holiday season. If you're one of them, you might be wondering: How does the COVID-19 pandemic change being a food bank volunteer this year?

One thing's for sure: Demand for the support that food banks and dining halls offer has soared. The holidays are consistently a busy period for food banks and dining halls anyway, often caused by the strain on people's finances that winter bills for gas and heating bring — combined with school being out and kids not receiving meals there. But during the COVID-19 pandemic the need for these services has skyrocketed.

"The pandemic has brought levels of food insecurity — and the work that food banks are doing — to unprecedented levels before the holidays even hit," says Mike Altfest, director of community engagement at the Alameda County Community Food Bank.

So whether or not you've supported your local food bank or dining hall with volunteer hours in previous years, how might things be different if you want to offer your time this holiday season? Read on for our tips — and click here for a list of local organizations to support.

You Might Not Be Able to Volunteer in Person ...

If you associate in-person volunteering during the holidays with taking a shift serving meals in a dining hall, be prepared for those types of opportunities to be slim — or unavailable altogether.

As a dining hall, GLIDE has traditionally relied heavily on volunteers to come help serve its meals in person, says their Deputy Director of Programs Lillian Mark. But during the pandemic, she says, the organization's ability to take on volunteers has been a true "ebb and flow"

GLIDE welcomed new volunteers for Thanksgiving, but isn't doing so during the December holidays because of the new regional stay-at-home order — and your local organization might be experiencing the same changing circumstances. The best way of finding out is by visiting their website or giving them a call directly. Find our list of local food banks and dining halls here.

And if you're wondering if volunteering at a food bank is still permitted under the Bay Area's regional stay-at-home order, the answer is yes: these organizations are considered essential, "as are volunteers who support us," says Alameda County Community Food Bank's Altfest.

... and if You Do, It'll Look Different

For one thing, there'll probably be far fewer volunteers on-site at the organization. Alameda County Community Food Bank is welcoming "far fewer people" as volunteers this holiday season, Altfest says, to allow for COVID-19 social distancing and to enable all necessary health screenings for the facility. 

The tasks volunteers are asked to perform in person might also be very different from the ones you'd expect or are used to. For example, Alameda County Community Food Bank is not accepting food donations right now to be able to prioritize the physical space for emergency food bags — so instead of sorting through food donations, its volunteers are being asked to assemble those bags instead.

It goes without saying that if you volunteer in person, you should be prepared to be asked to take extra precautions to reduce this risks of contracting — or spreading — COVID-19, and to follow rules on wearing face coverings and gloves and maintaining social distance.

Be Prepared to Take Your Volunteering Remote

Just because you can't work in a dining hall or warehouse this holiday season doesn't mean you can't get hands-on in different ways, and stay distanced.

GLIDE, for example, is seeking people to gather a group of friends or family for a virtual Care Item Drive, to collect new items for care packages. These items might include soaps and sanitizers for a Street Outreach Care Package, toys and diapers for a Shelter-In-Place Family Care Package or notebooks and pencils for a Distance Learning Care Package.

In addition to offering shifts at their warehouses in San Rafael and San Francisco packing senior boxes and building grocery bags, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank's remote volunteer roles include staffing pop-up pantries in the community, offering bilingual support (Spanish and Cantonese are their most urgent needs right now) and delivering fresh groceries by car.

Volunteers pass trays down the cafeteria line at St. Anthony's, pre-COVID-19. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

Consider Donating Instead

The pandemic has changed the way many food banks solicit and accept food donations, due to the risks of spreading COVID-19, which makes financial donations more necessary than ever.

Donating money rather than food gives places like food banks far more flexibility, as they're able to negotiate special deals for the food they buy. Basically, these organizations know how to make your cash go a long way when it comes to buying food — and almost certainly further than you'd be able to if you buy it yourself.

You might also be able to designate your dollars for a specific purpose. St. Anthony Foundation, for example, has taken its annual Holiday Curbside donation drive online — meaning you can make a donation via their website and use those dollars to "shop" for food and clothing for those who use  St. Anthony's services. You can also, of course, donate straight-up cash.

Your money will also help organizations like GLIDE continue to keep the people who use their services safe from COVID-19, Mark said, as well as support an organization's staff. Put simply, endlessly adapting to a pandemic is an expensive task for a nonprofit: from purchasing new packaging and flatware to be able to serve meals to-go rather than in a dining hall, to acquiring rain wear for staff to be able to serve clients outside.

That said, some organizations are still accepting drop-off food donations, like the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. Consult their list of most-needed foods first (think tuna, peanut butter and chili.)

Be Flexible and Patient

Mark advises that getting in touch with the organization of your choice to let them know you're even available to volunteer is a great way to get on their radar, especially at a time when some places — including GLIDE — are relying on a core of regular, known volunteers rather than a cycle of new ones during the pandemic. A dining hall or food bank might not be able to take advantage of your holiday availability straight away, but will be glad to do so in the coming weeks.

Mark also stresses the gratitude organizations like GLIDE feel toward people who wish they could volunteer, but don't feel safe or able to do so in person during the pandemic. So if your heart is telling you to volunteer but your head knows that your personal circumstances or health don't make that possible, these places will look forwarding to welcoming you in 2021. Speaking of which ...

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Sustain Your Support Into 2021

One thing both Mark and Altfest urge you to remember: Even if you're not able to volunteer during the holidays, these organizations' need for your time and support will only increase in the coming year.

"There's going to be a very, very long and steep climb out of this for our community in general, but particularly the communities that have been hit hardest," Altfest said.

So if you find you're unable to secure a volunteering shift over the holidays, sustain that energy and momentum and make a commitment to support your community in the new year and beyond.

A food pantry with staples such as tuna, bread and canned beans available to guests at St. Anthony's. The pantry began in 2008, but is a comparatively small program in terms of the dining room, which serves hundreds every day. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

Find a Food Bank or Dining Hall Near You

San Francisco:

East Bay:

North Bay:

South Bay:

Other smaller food banks and community fridges may be operating in your area.

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