Sixty-seven thousand pounds of apples left Wenatchee Friday morning. That afternoon they arrived at the Northwest Harvest warehouse in Kent. And, by Saturday morning, , Rotarians from District 5030 and other volunteers were ready to bag, sort, and package the apples to move them on to their next location—hundreds of food banks around Washington, including the Renton Rotary Salvation Army Food Bank.
Norm Abrahamson, a regular volunteer at Rotary First Harvest, has volunteered for so long that he remembers working in the original location at Pier 91 in Seattle. When asked by his good friend, Jim Baker, if he’d like to volunteer Abrahamson thought, why not? After all, as a retiree, he had plenty of time on his hands.
At Pier 91, Abrahamson and volunteers would repackage donated food into family-sized packages for distribution to local food banks. The next week, he’d see firsthand just what their work meant to others.
“The following Tuesday I was down at our local,” Abrahamson said. "And what did I see? There was one of the boxes of apples, which we had repackaged just a few days earlier being given out to a hungry family.”
“It brought home to me at a gut level how I was part of a chain of events which started probably in a Yakima orchard where a farmer donated a bin of surplus apples, which were then trucked to Seattle for free to the Northwest Harvest warehouse.”
David Bobanick, Executive Director of RFH, and his staff of three work a complex process of coordinating multiple partnering agencies to get food from farmers and packing houses to over 460 food banks across the state.
First, a call comes in from a partnership agency, such as Stemlit growers (where this week’s apple donation came from). It's one of the largest packing houses in Washington. The donations are “foods that are good to eat but wouldn’t otherwise be sold,” Bobanick said.
Apples, for instance, are graded by type of quality. Growers make their money on selling the highest grade of apples. “Those are the ones neatly stacked at your grocery store,” Bobanick said. “The grades below, go into bags—and are called ‘baggers’” The apples that make it to First Harvest for the Rotarians to bag are a lower pressure apple as they go across the assembly line, called “peeler apples."
First Harvest concentrates on the larger donations of foods—in the 40,000 pound range. After the donations come in—the next step in the important partnering process is the donation of transportation. At least 15 transportation partners are listed on RFH’s website. They offer donated or discounted trucking to move the food to one of the warehouse locations. And, then they come back from the warehouse with the empty bins ready to load them up again.
Dealing with those thousands of pounds of produce is the next step in the process. The second Saturday of every month is set-aside for Rotary volunteers, but others come as well. February's first Saturday had 147 volunteers, including a group of volleyball players from Kentridge High School. Kendall, from Tahoma Jr. High School, greeted volunteers at the door and said she comes back as often as she can. High school volunteers receive three service hour credits.
Other regular volunteers include Ralph Horn, from the Kent Rotary Lunch club, who distributes the workload, keeps things efficiently humming along, and coordinates the records.
Neale Weaver from the University Rotary Club said that 50 percent of the volunteers are repeats.
“It’s a great district-wide project,” Weaver said. “Last year, we moved 13 million pounds of food. It is truly my passion.”
“We have no idea how much this means to people,” said Karen Buckley, Rotary president from Federal Way.
Elle Hunter is the pulse behind this amazing 94,000 square foot warehouse. As the Operations Volunteer Supervisor she managed 77,000 volunteer hours last year. On my tour, she never stopped moving. “Hunger is such a huge issue,” Hunter said. She told the tour group that she experienced hunger as a child.
“What I’m so proud of is that Northwest Harvest is big on giving people dignity and giving them choice.”
During my three-hour visit, the Rotarians processed 43,000 pounds of apples and 13,000 pounds of beans.
It almost seems impossible to wrap your head around the numbers. But, Ahmad Attallah from Renton Rotary can. He said he moved 13,000 pounds of beans on Saturday—five feet at a time. That’s a lot of beans, going to a lot of hungry people.
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