Food banks are non-profit charitable organizations which collect food and other consumables (like soap) donated by individuals and/or corporations and redistribute it to people who may otherwise have trouble stretching their limited incomes far enough to obtain life's necessities. Once viewed as a stop-gap to temporarily help people over short-periods of economic hardship, food banks have become a permanent part of the human services network.

In Canada, most food banks are 'middlemen' in the charitable network, acting as warehouse and distribution points for donated foodstuffs and other consumables. They collect sundry donations, sort and organize them, and parcel them out to affiliated agencies such as missions, church groups, and other smaller organizations that directly support needy individuals.

When I was a young man, I used to volunteer at a Toronto food bank. They're now all hoity-toity and only allow the general public to volunteer during festive holiday season photo ops, but back then they were much smaller and grateful for any help they could get. Most of their volunteers were dear, frail elderly ladies who would methodically stack tuna cans one at a time. They were more than happy to put a hale young man to work dealing with the more physical and messier end of things. I rapidly found myself, with no training and minimal supervision, clambering around in large bins of past-best-before fruit and/or vegetables dropped off by grocery chains. The idea was to separate the usable from the unusable, and normally there was a lot of the former so it was well worth the harvest. This job was messy but rewarding.

In addition it was often necessary to move skids around in the primary warehouse, which was a former grocery store that the chain wasn't using and had made available to the food bank. Among the amusements available were the manual pallet jacks (a/k/a/ skid jacks or stackers). The food bank units had a lot of years on them, and they were in such shape that a bit more dinging by yours truly made no noticeable difference. Once I had demonstrated a basic level of competence and trustworthiness, I was permitted to use the powered pallet jack. This was a big, cantankerous chunk of equipment. Coupled with a skid of produce, I was in control of a dangerous mass of inertia. This never led to disaster, but there were a few near misses. Unloaded, the power jack was an enjoyable mode of personal transport. It was designed to prevent the operator from riding it, but there are ways, oh yes indeed.

Eventually personal circumstances meant I was no longer able to volunteer there, but I did one last stint before the holiday season. The food bank had a long-term storage warehouse for canned goods and other non-perishables that could be kept for periods of high demand. A number of volunteers were recruited to gather supplies from this facility to stock up the agencies for the holidays. Several newbies like me were on their first trip out alongside one veteran who had the keys. He unlocked the door and rolled it up...and I had never seen so many mice in my entire life. You know in cartoons when you see a dark space and then a hundred pairs of yellow eyes open and look at you? It was like that, just for a moment, before the scurrying* began.

I went home afterward and put my clothes in a trash bag and had a long shower, and I slept with the light on, and that was the end of my food bank volunteer career. I give to the food drives, but I donate just the things I know will get used right away: baby formula, juice boxes, canned fruit, soap, detergent. I do miss the power jack though, oh such fun we had together.

* Us, or the mice, you ask? A bit of each, actually.


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