A day with CityReach Care Society

To mark International Volunteer Day in December 2020, FoodMesh pledged 150 volunteer hours to food security organizations in our communities. This series goes behind the scenes of the teams’ experience at those organizations.

“We are in the HOPE business”, is the message that welcomes you as you approach the CityReach Care Society facility in East Vancouver.

And based on what I saw during my volunteer shift that day, they’re not wrong.

Inside the doors of this impressive facility is an operation that provides almost 1,000 meal hampers to families, seniors and other individuals in the community every week. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, that number was 100, but the need for food grew exponentially with the pandemic, and the CityReach staff and its 300+ volunteers rose to the challenge. In 2020 alone, they secured 770,000 pounds of food donations (worth $2 million) to meet the significant growth in their operations and gave out a staggering 30,843 food hampers.

This is the venue for my volunteer day. Donned in a high-vis vest and steel-toed shoes, my first job is to help unload the truck that has been refrigerating yesterday’s donation haul. We need to get it ready for the day’s volunteers, who will be arriving soon to sort through the food and pack it into hampers, ready for the food bank later that day.

I hop into the truck with Jerome, a retired Aerospace engineering professor who now spends three days a week picking up food donations from various locations across the Lower Mainland. After our first round of pick-ups, we return to CityReach HQ to drop off the pallets of food. I notice the lineup of clients has already started to form outside the CityReach facility, a good three hours before the doors are due to open.

Save-On-Foods’ Madison location is our next stop, where we load the truck with boxes of milk, bread, bagels, meat, seafood, fresh produce, cakes, sushi and sandwiches, which Save-On-Foods has donated to CityReach, because – for a multitude of reasons – they are no longer able to sell it. You wouldn’t know from looking at it though, because so much of the food I’m packing looks as good as if it was still on the shelf. We take it back to the CityReach facility, where the volunteers swiftly surround the boxes to begin unpacking them.

I exchange my high-vis vest for an apron and latex gloves, to help sort the food. I join a table of ladies who are inspecting boxes of snap peas, ensuring that any that are over-ripe are carefully extracted from the pile and composted. Once all the sorted food donations are laid out ready for packing, I take a moment to observe the spread, which reminds me more of a grocery store than a food bank. The vast array of food on display, the vibrant colours of the vegetables, and the fruit’s sweet smell is truly impressive.

The next shift of volunteers arrives to pack the food into hampers. I jump in to pack bags of fruit and vegetables, portioned out according to the intended household size. I move to the protein table, to carefully inspect that none of the packaging has been damaged. And finally, I move to the carbohydrate table, to pack bags of soup and bread.

By this time, the line up outside the facility is blocks long, and I can feel the energy build, as people eagerly await CityReach’s doors to open.

Finally, they do, and I watch as clients approach the desk to fill their bags with a weeks’ worth of proteins, fresh produce, carbohydrates and more. After collecting their food, they are invited to participate in a wellness check with CityReach volunteers. The energy is high as people move through the line, chat and exchange stories from the week.

As I get a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility, courtesy of the Director of the Food for Families program, Sharon Dong, she recalls several stories her clients have told her over the last year – from one man, who hadn’t eaten any seafood for several years until he received some in his CityReach food hamper, to another whose daughter was celebrating her birthday, only for a birthday cake to arrive in the donations CityReach received that very week. She tells me about another client with Crohn’s disease, who has a restricted diet of a very specific brand of cereal, and that exact brand of cereal just happened to be included in the donations they received the following week.

“It’s amazing how often these coincidences occur,” Sharon tells me. And it’s these extra offerings that CityReach’s clients don’t expect, that often mean the most to them. “We just wouldn’t be able to make this sort of difference in peoples’ lives without the incredible generosity of our donors.”

Around 30% of the donations CityReach receives is through FoodMesh, either directly from the stores they pick up from every week, or from Food Stash and the Immigrant Link Centre Society, who share the food donations they pick up with them.

Feeling extremely fortunate to have had a sneak peek into the incredible work of CityReach, and seeing how the donations they receive through the stores working with FoodMesh are used, I finished the day feeling more hopeful than ever. If this is the hope business, I am happy to be in it.

Written by Megan Czerpak, Head of Communications at FoodMesh