A Day Sorting Donated Food With Women’s Philanthropy

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women's philanthropy volunteers sort food at the share food program
Women sort food at the Share Food Program Warehouse on Nov. 4 from the Mitzvah Food Program’s High Holiday Food Drive. (Photo by Eric Schucht)

A labyrinth of boxed apples and potatoes crowded the walkways at the Share Food Program Warehouse in North Philadelphia. The sound of beeping forklifts could be heard in the distance as the machinery weaved throughout the maze of food. A crowd had gathered on the morning of Nov. 4, wedged between blue painted cement pillars. It was that time of year again for the annual food sort for the Mitzvah Food Program’s High Holiday Food Drive.

Each High Holiday season the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia organizes its largest food collection of the year, providing more than 50,000 pounds of food for Mitzvah Food Program clients. It’s believed more than 11,000 Jewish households in the region face food insecurity. To help, the program distributes nutritious food at its five pantries, serving 8,600 individuals each year.

Local synagogues and organizations join together to collect kosher food as a part of the drive. Then members of Women’s Philanthropy at Jewish Federation sort it at the warehouse before it’s sent off. Jodi Miller, chair of Women’s Philanthropy at Jewish Federation. said the food sort gives people the opportunity to learn more about the work of the Mitzvah Food Program.

“What I find so meaningful is that it’s a way to engage volunteers in a Mitzvah Project. It’s a way to bring them in to get a better understanding of the work that we actually do. When you come and it’s fun and it’s social,” Miller said. “It’s a nice way to interact with the women, get them involved and start to understand where our donations go and where our dollars go, and to better understand the work of Jewish Federation.”

Deirdre Mulligan, the Mitzvah Food Program senior manager, said the demand at its pantries has increased over the years, but the program has yet to experience a shortage of food. The program has evolved in the 14 years Mulligan has been a part of it. Years ago, the High Holiday food drive accepted any food people were willing to give. Mulligan said they received lots of pasta, potato chips, bags of cereal and open jars of used peanut butter. While well-intentioned, these items would easily break and tear open, attracting vermin. A lot of donations were thrown out. Mulligan recalls an incident about eight years ago where there was a break-in and “those unwanted guests came in and had a feast.” About 20,000 pounds of food got trashed. Apparently, raccoons are big fans of matzah.

As a result, the program now only accepts non-perishable, non-breakable containers. Being more selective has eliminated waste from expired food. The pantry has gone from having to throw out 1,000 pounds of expired food from the drive to now just a single paper box. Of note, Mulligan said the oldest thing ever received was powdered key-lime Jell-O from the ’70s, which she was too afraid to open. Though they ask for kosher foods, it’s common to receive non-kosher donations. Those will be left with Share Food Program to distribute to 500 pantries throughout the area.

“I can guarantee that I will get pork and beans. I guarantee I will get clams. And I will be giving those right to Share,” Mulligan said.

At the sort, about 120 women, bundled in warm jackets and hats, split between two shifts and spent hours sorting canned proteins like nut butters, canned fish and canned beans into boxes at the warehouse. Many of the women return every year, but it was the first time for Terri Soifer. Wearing a purple Baltimore Ravens beanie, she helped out at the nut-butter table. Soifer decided to come out after hearing about the food sort from Women of Vision, Philadelphia’s Jewish Women’s Foundation. She appreciated the chance to help with other women of the community.

“It’s wonderful that we all come together,” Soifer said. “We collect at our different synagogues and community centers for the High Holidays, and to all come together as one community to sort it ties the whole program up nicely.”

Amy Wittenstein, the vice chair of Women’s Philanthropy, was working at the same shift with Soifer. She spoke about the value of volunteering.

“It’s an important mitzvah to do,” Wittenstein said. “People at the High Holidays feel that they want to give and help out, and this is a way to do it. Basically, it has really been a great event.”

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