On a cold Saturday morning, the Food Bank's member food pantry at Lake Merritt United Methodist Church has a unique problem: too many volunteers.
Energetic teenagers from Asian Youth Services tease one another and trade tips as they set up tables for the client-choice distribution. ("Don’t stack the tofu too high!") Others, many from another nearby church, keep the line outside in order and start to pre-bag produce for what's sure to be a busy morning.
Just before 10 a.m., volunteer coordinator Sherri Elinson huddles the group of about 25 people together.
"First things first. Who here speaks Chinese?" About a dozen hands go up, mostly among the teenagers. Sherri quickly assigns the bilingual volunteers to their stations: three for line control, one at registration, and one at each table of food.
"Let’s make the people here feel comfortable and at home today," Sherri says to the circle. "Smile, look them in the eye, and say 'thank you.' Treat them as if they’re coming to visit us in our home."
Just outside, more than 300 people have lined up, each with a numbered card. Clients suggested the system rather than a first-come, first-served system. Numbered cards ensure that everyone who shows up will go home with food that day.
Giving people what they want
Clients are greeted by a volunteer at a computer, who scans a card the client carries with them. The computer brings up the client’s household size and other information in a split second, helping the line move quickly.
The first client takes two packages of tofu, rice, noodles, canned greens, milk and juice, and then winds around the pantry for produce. The second client opts for canned tuna, noodles, canned vegetables and greens and juice.
Tofu may seem like an unexpected first choice, but at this pantry, the protein-rich soy product is a staple. A survey of their clients had showed that tofu was in high demand. So the church worked with the Food Bank to add it to their distribution — now 300 containers each week, paid for by Food Bank donors.
"Some of our best ideas come from our clients," Sherri said. "We just have to ask. Until we asked, we didn’t know that our clients weren’t sure what to do with tuna. The Food Bank brought in recipes for tuna printed in Chinese, and now a lot of people are taking it."
Speaking the language
When the church noticed that their clientele was changing, they worked to change, too. Bilingual volunteers first came from a neighboring congregation, Chinese Community United Methodist Church.
Asian Youth Services added to their corps of bilingual helpers. Some of the youth brought in their friends, and the pantry was able to grow along with their client base to serve twice as many families within months.
Signs and flyers about pantry hours, recipes and other programs are available in Chinese and English, translated by the volunteers or by the Food Bank.
"It’s so nice for clients to be heard and understood, to have questions answered in their own language," Sherri said. "It’s part of making people feel comfort and dignity."
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of Agencies in Action, Alameda County Community Food Bank's quarterly newsletter for our 275 member agencies.