From noon on a crisp, fall Friday to noon on a sunny Saturday, the work never stops at Operation Orange. Caring people come from all over Northeast Ohio to sort meat, bag fruit and vegetables, and label cans.
“It does feel like community to me, is what it feels like.”
Good people, fresh food
That’s Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank CEO Dan Flowers standing in the 85,000-square-foot warehouse amid a sea of volunteers. They’re giving their time in two- to four-hour shifts to pack donated food, much of it so-called “food bank-grade produce” from local farmers.
“These carrots over here, giant carrots or oddball, kind of shaped carrots are all perfectly good carrots that you could use fresh out of the field. We have a whole semi-load of them that we’re going to have volunteers helping us break down into consumer-size bags today, too. So pretty cool.”
A good opportunity to be of service
The Firestone High School girls’ tennis team thinks so, too.
“Our coach brought it up to us. We thought it would be cool to just help out. ... We need a lot of hours for the International Baccalaureate Program, volunteer hours. So this was a good opportunity because a lot of us do that.”
Companies and their employees pitch in
Many companies see Operation Orange as a good team-building opportunity, too. Helen Douka drove in with co-workers from Earth Fare.
“We have a store out in Fairlawn. It’s especially important coming from like a grocery store to kind of see another aspect of the food world, because we work with food all the time.”
Katie Dula works in Dominion East Ohio’s Land Services Department in North Canton. But right now she’s packing apples into 5-pound bags.
“I think the best part is that you realize that you’re giving back to the community in such a big way. Even though we might only be taking time for two hours to pack food, but you realize it’s having a really great impact on the community."
Foodbank CEO Dan Flowers welcomes Li Jean Donovan. She has just arrived from Sequoia Financial Group’s Akron office.
“And this is probably about the third or fourth time I’ve been here. I really enjoy coming here.”
“Well, thanks for coming back,” Flowers tells her. “Sequoia, also they gave us $20,000 as a challenge that they would match dollar-for-dollar donations from the community up to that amount. So, a big shout-out to them.”
A family feeling
Last year, the Foodbank received 6.5 million pounds of free produce, enough for 20 million meals.
Shawn McCall of US Foods helped make 4 million of those meals possible as co-chair of the foodbank’s Harvest for Hunger Campaign.
“And we have employee volunteers for the Operation Orange. I think we have a couple different blocks at different times when employees are going to show up today. That’s my daughter Sara. She’s been here before so last time we packed meat, right? You were the chicken girl? Yeah. She did all the poultry.”
Operation Orange is a family affair for Food Bank CEO Dan Flowers, too. Fourteen-year-old Andy Flowers participates along with his brother and sister.
“I got dropped off after school. They’re coming in later.”
Dan Flowers sees the food bank as one big family taking care of each other while the need keeps growing. Community leaders formed the food bank in 1982. Today 1-in-7 people in the region cope with food insecurity.
“So I see all of that when I think of this today. I think of our future and all of our volunteers, all the former employees. And it’s just like this food bank is alive in everyone, right, that’s given to it over the years. So that to me is what I see more than anything.”
Katie Carver, meanwhile, flashes back to a darker image. She works now as a program coordinator at the food bank, but she grew up in poverty.
“Having dinner with my whole family and my mom saying, ‘I’m not hungry,’ even though I knew she was. I remember specifically having the same experience that our clients have now.
"When I knew we were getting assistance from places I thought, ‘How great is it that there are strangers who don’t even know me or my family, but they know that we’re struggling and they want to help us?’
"And I see thousands of them here now. ... And so it’s really a very special experience for me.”
More than 1,700 volunteers enjoyed the experience of Operation Orange this year, about 500 more than last year. They sorted and repacked more food in 24 hours than the foodbank could have done in three months.
Their work means 195,000 meals will be served to families facing hunger.
The date’s already set for the next Operation Orange. It’ll be from noon Sept. 11th to noon Sept. 12th.