If you’re looking to volunteer for a food shelter, thank you. 51% of all food programs rely exclusively on volunteers, and without people like you, millions would go hungry every day. Whether it’s stacking food, sorting food, or preparing food, know that your impact makes a difference.
The average food bank may need 20 volunteers every day several days a week just to stay operational, which means there is an absolute need across the nation for people to step up and help. Even if it’s not a holiday or emergency relief situation, volunteering at a food shelter gives you an easy sense of helping others and generosity that can sometimes be hard to find.
Once you decide to help and show up, being prepared for your first day is crucial. You’ll have to understand the basics of food safety, restaurant safety, and overall develop a sense of health consciousness. You are, after all, handling other people’s food.
Here’s a couple of basics to get you started.
Store Food the Right Way
One of the primary concerns for any food kitchen is to prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses. Often, these can be hard to identify outright since the food looks and tastes normal. In reality, the bacteria that can lead to nausea, diarrhea, fever, and other illnesses grows quickest between temperatures of 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. These symptoms are painful in younger, healthy people, but for older people, it can be fatal.
Make sure that you clean and sanitize every surface before the food arrives, placing frozen food immediately in the freezer and other cold products in the refrigerator. Also, contrary to popular opinion, rinse any produce once you’re about to cook it instead of before it’s served; the moisture left on the surface can lead to fungus or other bacterial growth.
Remember this mantra: when in doubt, throw it out.
Careful Preparation is Key. Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, prepare food at home to serve at a soup kitchen. Anything outside the cooking area can be contaminated, whether through transport or just faulty storage techniques. Make sure your entire crew is wearing appropriate clothing – hats/hairnets, aprons, gloves, etc – and wash hands thoroughly before beginning, and after handling different types of food.
Keep all of your surfaces clean, and keep raw and uncooked foods away from the other dishes. Make sure the hot foods stay hot and the cold foods stay cold. It’s imperative that you avoid cross-contamination at all costs, especially in ways that you wouldn’t normally think to. Use a different knife, for instance, when you cut different foods, and sanitize all surfaces before putting a new dish on it. Also, never reuse disposable containers; throw them in the recyclable bin instead.
Don’t Forget the Clean Up! Just because you’re done serving food doesn’t mean that you can throw caution to the wind. One of the best ways to prepare for disasters in the future is to store your food the right way. Place the hot foods in a small bin at the rear of the refrigerator, and check the temperature regularly to make sure it doesn’t get too warm. Label and date all food that is stored to prevent others from serving old and unhealthy food. Sanitize the entire area, cooking utensils and serving areas included.
One of the best things you can do is check with your fellow volunteers to make sure you don’t have too much food left over. Ideally, you would make enough food for every meal and have nothing left, but this isn’t always possible. You can ask those who are more experienced to develop a loose menu to follow, however; it’s always better to have too much than not enough to serve. If it’s allowed, consider also letting people take food home as well.
Volunteering at a food kitchen is one of the best ways to help others, and it provides a valuable service to people who are less fortunate than yourself. It also allows you to feel a part of your local community by making new friends, both with your fellow volunteers and the ones you serve.