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Clark County Food Bank volunteers make easy work out of packing 45,000 meal kits for hungry

By , Columbian business reporter
Published:
8 Photos
Volunteer Elyce Naray, right, carries her 1-year-old daughter, Elowen, on her back, as she helps package jambalaya meals at the Clark County Food Bank in Vancouver on Saturday. A $15,000 grant from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to U.S. Hunger covered the cost of the food and packaging materials.
Volunteer Elyce Naray, right, carries her 1-year-old daughter, Elowen, on her back, as she helps package jambalaya meals at the Clark County Food Bank in Vancouver on Saturday. A $15,000 grant from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to U.S. Hunger covered the cost of the food and packaging materials. (ELAYNA YUSSEN for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Approximately 400 local members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered at the Clark County Food Bank on Saturday for a food-packing volunteer event that produced 45,000 jambalaya meal kits for local distribution.

The event was a partnership between the church, the humanitarian aid organization U.S. Hunger (formerly known as Feeding Children Everywhere) and the food bank, with the bulk food and packaging supplies funded by a $15,000 grant from the church.

U.S. Hunger was initially founded as part of the relief effort following the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. The agency expanded in the subsequent decade, producing more than 150 million meals in total and growing its footprint to 53 countries, according to Briana Blanchard, senior event lead at U.S. Hunger.

U.S. Hunger often hosts packing events using a turnkey model, she said, in which the agency secures the bulk food and packaging materials using funds raised by churches or aid organizations, and then volunteers from the partner groups arrive at planned events to produce individual packaged meals.

“All they have to do is provide tables and people,” she said.

The partners get to choose where the food goes, and U.S. Hunger sometimes also coordinates delivery and distribution, Blanchard added, but in this case, because the meals were assembled at the food bank, they’ll be distributed directly to Clark County residents through the food bank and its partners.

U.S. Hunger has had to dial back its volunteer packing events during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, leaving its own staff scrambling to fill the gap, and has only recently been able to start increasing the frequency again.

“We essentially took the year off,” Blanchard said. “We shut it down completely.”

Saturday’s event drew volunteers from three Clark County branches (referred to as “stakes”) of the church and had been in planning since shortly before the pandemic began, according to Marian Armstrong, president of the Ridgefield stake’s Relief Society.

It had to be put on hold for more than a year to wait for a safe opportunity, she said, but when it finally came time to recruit church volunteers, members of all ages quickly joined the ranks.

“What I liked about this project was anyone can help,” she said.

The 400 volunteers rotated through in three shifts through the three-hour event, with volunteers from the Vancouver, Ridgefield and East Vancouver stakes each taking a shift.

At each of the nine tables snaking around the food bank warehouse floor, a team of about a dozen volunteers wearing gloves, masks and hairnets scooped portions of dried rice, lentils and other ingredients into pre-labeled bags, performed quality checks, and then sealed up the finished jambalaya meal kits to be packed into boxes waiting at the end of each line.

Jambalaya was the food bank’s choice of meal, according to Director of Programs Emily Straw. U.S. Hunger lets volunteer event partners choose from a menu of meal options, and Straw said the food bank taste-tested some of them with its clients.

“The jambalaya one was everyone’s favorite,” she said.

The local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stakes have a history of volunteer work and food support, Armstrong said, but rarely on quite so large a scale. A packaged-food assembly line was new territory, but Blanchard said the groups learned quickly, with each shift ramping up to a high speed after getting acclimated for the first 15 minutes or so.

It was also a bit unusual for the food bank, Straw said, which generally focuses more on distributing pre-packaged food than preparing bulk food in-house. But the church and U.S. Hunger took the lead in planning and were able to solve all the logistical challenges, she said.

Columbian business reporter
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