Every box you open, a new surprise awaits you. It could be the sweet aroma of strawberries or the strong smell of a pepper. Searching each fruit, vegetable or frozen food for soft spots, mold or slime is the key to knowing which go into the trash, and which go into the box to be shipped out to people who desperately need it.
Any doubts, throw it out.
“I’d rather have something you’re not sure about be thrown away than to ship out any bad produce,” said Brian Weemhoff, 26, volunteer coordinator for Food Gatherers, the nerve center of the food chain for Washtenaw County’s hungry.
All the preparation to handle the foods feels like any restaurant, complete with set of gloves and sanitizer for cleanup. It can really take you back to the days of working your first fast food job. You can even listen to a little country music as you sort the items.
Food Gatherers has many other opportunities besides sorting produce, including picking up and delivering food and working as a kitchen volunteer at the Robert J. Delonis Center.
“We partner with 150 non-profit programs in Washtenaw County and a lot of those programs assist people with shelter, like the Delonis Center,” Said Mary Schlitt, director of Development at Food Gatherers. “Community Kitchen has served over 100,000 meals to people in need, and a large population that access the Community Kitchen are homeless.”
The charity was founded in 1988 by Zingerman’s Delicatessen. It is the state’s first food-rescue program and the primary emergency food distributor in Washtenaw County.
In its most recent fiscal year, Food Gatherers delivered 5.25 million pounds of food, which equates four million meals to needy families, seniors and the homeless. With need growing, it is striving for a higher goal in this fiscal: 5.7 million pounds and 4.4 million meals.
“We serve about 48,000 individuals with emergency food resources. About 14,000 are kids and 6,500 are seniors,” Schlitt said.
There is certainly a moment of astonishment when you see how large their warehouse is and the amount of people that greet each other with a “hello” and a smile.
“I always tell people I work for the best place in the world,” Weemhoff says with a smile. It’s truly amazing to think That Food Gatherers started off working out of Zingerman’s Deli.
Two hours of volunteering seem to fly by as all the boxes from the unsorted pile have been moved to the sorted pile and your shift comes to an end. You clean your area from the somewhat messy job, and more volunteers take your place. About 5,000 people make up the volunteer force and they work for around 70 percent of the hours put in at Food Gatherers, but sadly that is not nearly enough.
“It’s a tough job, and we can’t do it alone,” Schlitt said. “We need people to donate food, to volunteer and contribute money to help us meet the need and demand, because the demand is high,” said Schlitt, who said there has been a “130 percent increase in the last four years of people seeking emergency food resources and it’s staying high, it’s not budging, it’s growing incrementally every year”
Food Gatherers demographic focuses on people who are of low income and can’t afford the prices of food.
“The majority of people that we serve are not homeless,” Schlitt said. “We serve families, mostly with children.”
The charity has also seen a rise in the number of seniors which has doubled in the last four years.
“There are families that are making money, paying their bills, paying their utilities, maybe paying medical bills – and at the end of the day, when they pay all these things, they don’t have money left over for food,” Schlitt said.
To increase the amount of fresh produce getting in the hands of the needy, Food Gatherers started the “Gathering Farm” to grow and harvest produce.
“It’s fresh. It’s local. We don’t have to pay a lot of money for it because we’re growing it on our own,” Schlitt said. “Through the gathering farm, we have distributed close to 60,000 pounds of produce over the last three years.”
Among the partners of Food Gatherers is Washtenaw Community College. Its Student and Women’s Resource Center has an emergency food pantry that gets much of its food from Food Gatherers.
“We’ve been a partner with them for about 8-10 years now,” said Elizabeth Orbits, manager of the Center. “We served about 86 families last year, the age range about 20 to 59.”
About 75 percent of the students who receive this help are working, but still need help, she said.
“We’re very fortunate here at the college to be able to take some of our funding and be able to purchase to keep it stocked,” Orbits said, “and of course the generosity of people in the college community has helped a great deal.”
The gratitude in services provided by Food Gatherers is heartwarming to those who work there.
“It will surprise you how many people write notes to us who say, ‘when I am in a position where I can help, I’m going to volunteer. I’m going to donate to Food Gatherers,’” Schlitt said. “We get a lot of people that feel uncomfortable receiving services from us. They want to give back, like down the road.
“They feel so grateful for this service, so they want to pass it on.”