Food shelves seek younger volunteers

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Food shelves aim to recruit more young people to volunteer alongside seniors

Dennis Weeks couldn’t be happier with the volunteers at the Manna Food Pantry in Worthington, Minn. There’s just one problem: They’re getting old.

“Five to 10 years from now, my current crop of volunteers will all be gone,” said Weeks, who worries about how to replace them. The average age of his volunteers is 70 years old. The oldest is 89.

About 160 food shelf directors, staff and volunteers gathered this week for a two-day conference in St. Cloud sponsored by Minnesota FoodShare. Among the many topics on the agenda: How to get younger volunteers in the door.

Minnesota food shelves rely heavily on volunteers. Some have no paid staff at all. And many of those volunteers are seniors. They are loyal, hard-working, committed, and on time, according to food shelf directors who rave about them.

But Joanna Perry of the Pine River Area Food Shelf needs some younger folks too.

“Food shelves involve heavy work” said Perry, who needs volunteers to stock shelves and unload deliveries of food.

That can be tough for some volunteers pushing 70.

“Their backs are killing them, their wrists are shot, their knees are gone,” she said.

Perry was among the many food shelf representatives at this week’s conference trying to figure out how to draw a younger crowd.

“That’s where I’m struggling,” she said. “Where do I pull from? Where do I find people who are 45-50, or 55-60… who still have strong backs and want to come help me unload these pallets?”

Lee George, fund development chairman for the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration, drew a packed room to discuss the future of volunteers at food shelves. He described current trends in volunteering and encouraged the crowd to think about what younger generations want from volunteering and structure positions to provide that.

Generation X wants flexible schedules and expects their time to be used efficiently, he said. Millennials seek leadership opportunities and want feedback.

George also helped the room brainstorm ways to recruit younger volunteers.

“If you start making changes now… maybe in one year, two years, ten years, maybe you’ll have a very solid volunteer base made up of many different generations,” he said.

Making those changes can be tough for any organization, he said, but particularly for food shelves with very little staff that need to focus daily on getting food into the hands of hungry Minnesotans.

And can be hard for people like Dennis Weeks.

At 72, Weeks values the dependability of older volunteers – and isn’t accustomed to volunteers who send text messages to report they won’t make it on time.

But he is determined to help the Manna Food Pantry, which serves about 400 families a month, continue years from now. After the St. Cloud conference, Weeks plans to reach out to potential volunteers in new ways. He’s embraced the idea of meeting younger people where they gather.

“I’m realizing that we probably need to put it on a Facebook page,” he said.

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