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Beyond the Food Pantry: Community Service Ideas in the Food World

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Farm volunteering

Students interested in fighting hunger, preserving the environment, or helping local econonmies should consider these food-related volunteer opportunities.

One of the most common ways for young people to pursue community service is through volunteer work in a food pantry or soup kitchen. And this popularity makes sense: It is meaningful, satisfying work. In the course of just a few hours you can clearly see the impact you have on the lives of those you help.

The good news is that there is a growing number of service options for those interested in helping ensure people have access to ample, nutritious food. Interest in strengthening local food systems, promoting organic agriculture, and preventing food waste has soared in recent years, resulting in a proliferation of opportunities for volunteers who want to help shape how and what we eat.

Down on the farm

Locally grown foods are becoming incredibly popular. Small farms can help increase the supply of nutritious food in an area, strengthen local economies, and make it easier for low-income families to get fruits and vegetables.

If you are looking for some hands-on volunteer work, find a local farm that needs some help and try your hand at weeding, pruning, and harvesting. Contact area farms or agricultural associations to ask about service opportunities. Some farms also combine education with volunteering: In Waltham, Massachusetts, for example, the Garden Corps Teen Farm Volunteer program teaches participants about designing, planting, and caring for vegetable gardens.

To combine agricultural volunteer work with travel, check out Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms-USA. The groups connects travelers with organic farms looking for help; visitors earn room and board by working half-days on the farm, learning and making cultural connections.

Waste not

Did you know that approximately one-third of all the food produced in the world is thrown out, uneaten? Increasingly, nonprofit groups are looking for ways to rescue some of this food in order to feed people at risk of going hungry and to reduce environmental damage.

If you’re interested in joining the fight, seek out an organization in your area. In Boston, for example, Rescuing Leftover Cuisine Massachusetts recruits volunteers to collect unused food from donors and distribute it to shelters and human services agencies. In southern California, Food Forward volunteers visit farmers markets and backyard orchards to gather produce for hunger relief organizations.

Go to market

The number of farmers markets has soared in the past 10 to 15 years; almost every town has at least one these days. These regular events give local farmers the chance to sell their wares, and local consumers the chance to buy the freshest possible food and support area businesses.

Farmers markets often need volunteers to help with set-up, greet and direct customers, work on administrative tasks or promotions, or help with educational programs. Atlanta’s Green Market depends on volunteers to set-up booths and clean-up after the market. In San Francisco, volunteers with the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture help support customers at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, teach kids’ cooking classes, and do office work.

For young people interested in food issues, environmental preservation, and supporting local economies, this crop of volunteer options can be valuable and rewarding.