Sharing the bounty: A day in the life of a food shelf manager


Note: As families and friends gather to enjoy the feasts of this holiday season it is a privilege to know and share the story of one man who spends his long days making sure that everyone in the community shares both the bounty and the love of their neighbors.

Scott Andrews is the energetic manager responsible for providing a warm welcome and wholesome food to the families of northern Dakota County (MN) who depend on Neighbors, Inc.

7:30 AM: The volunteers have already been at Cub Foods and Super Target where they have picked up and now delivered fresh produce, dairy products, fresh and frozen meat products. This morning the Boy Scouts have dropped off an impressive load of canned goods plus a check they have collected at their weekend food drive. Scott is psyched for a busy day – it’s the first of the month.

8:00 AM: Scott is joined by Linda, a volunteer who has kept the food shelf running on an even keel for over thirty years. Linda’s husband has already been on volunteer duty with the crew at Cub.

8:30 AM: Before the doors open to clients, a second crew of volunteers come on board. This crew will sort the fresh produce, bag some, cull out the not-so-fresh, and create a tempting display of nutritious veggies for the shoppers. They will also weigh the canned goods, scratch off the bar codes and check the expiration dates to assure quality control. They’ll package the fresh meat in family-size amounts, bag the apples and oranges (if there is fresh fruit today), check the eggs, refrigerate the dairy products, prepared salads and dairy treats, wash the veggies, shelve the fresh baker products and otherwise present the clients with a display of food that is as attractive as it is wholesome.

Meanwhile, clients are arriving at the reception desk upstairs. Families wait patient as busy staffers check their ID’s and verification documents. Each family must be recertified once a month. Hungry children examine the picture books and squirm impatiently as they wait foe the grownups to complete the necessary paperwork. Moms and dads wait patiently to go through the hoops required to put healthy food on the family table. Elderly folks help keep an eye on the little ones, thinking fondly of their own grandchildren.

9:00 AM: The food shelf phones begin to ring- and the action begins. The families whose credentials are in order after they have met with the intake staff are ready to shop. Spirits rise ad the customers enter the food shelf, clutching wiggly kids and free-wheeling grocery carts, eager to explore their shopping options.

The little ones are quick to spy the breakfast cereal and peanut butter that are in stock this week. The moms catch a sidelong glimpse of the shampoo and scented soaps that donors have toted back from their hotel stays.

A volunteer interrupts her work to help a dad whose having a struggle with four-year-old twins. She finds a picture book to share with the boys so the dad can shop and get to work on time.

10:30 AM: Scott scans the shelves to make sure the labels are up to date and clearly displayed. Because Neighbors is an “open choice” food shelf customers, with the help of volunteers, can select their own grocery items – ever dependent on what’s available that day. Each shelf is meticulously labeled so that the clients know exactly how many of “product X” they may selection a family of “Y” members. One of Scott’s jobs is to make sure that the labels on the shelves reflect the changes in supply. Unlike the supermarket manager he has little control over available commodities.

Another team of volunteers arrives. Scott reassesses the tasks and the team as he lays out the work plan for the next shift. Over the course of the week Scott will see to it that each of the sixty food shelf volunteers has a job that fits his or her skill and interests.

Today there are donations to be weighed and entered in the data base. Every ounce of food that comes in is weighted. Every donor is to be credited and individually thanked.

NOON: Volunteers share a pleasant break in the day by helping a family celebrate a birthday! The intake person who follows the family’s record has alerted Scott that the little girl is celebrating her sixth birthday. A volunteer finds a decorated cake donated by a local grocery store. Cake and candles in hand, the family heads home to share a special evening.

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And so the day goes – the volunteer shifts manage the steady flow of food and families. Scott attends a staff meeting, completes the food orders for the near future, checks the shelves, reviews the raft of health regulations, struggles with the budget, chats with the volunteers and welcomes a constant flow of customers with a warm smile.

Food shelf management doesn’t require a degree from the Culinary Institute of America or experience as a sommelier — in fact there is no formally accredited academic program geared to the vocation. Still, Scott’s skill set bears a strong resemblance to that of a master restaurateur with a flair for customer care and stretching a dollar. He knows food – the nutritional value, the cost, the availability, the presentation of the product. Because he has little control over the sources or selection of the food he provides his clients, Scott explores creative techniques to make a pre-selected menu of wholesome food products irresistible. As a result, he calculates that 87% of the food selections by his food shelf clients are distinctly healthy choices.

Dependent on the generosity of individual and institutional donors, Scott doesn’t enjoy the luxury of daily trips to the farmers’ market – though he welcomes with open arms the produce contributed by vendors at the end of the day’s market. He doesn’t order delicacies from the fresh fish purveyor or offer exotic taste treats to his customers. His greatest asset is a staff of dependable volunteers who work because they care and because their efforts make a difference for members of the community. It is up to Scott to “keep things interesting.”

Food shelf management is not one of the professional paths a talented youth is likely to pursue. Scott himself did not exactly choose the career he now loves. His degree from Northern Michigan University was in Spanish and International Studies. It was during his stint as a youth ministry volunteer in Costa Rica that he mastered his language skills and learned to enjoy working with volunteers. He is quick to point out, too, that the time he spent as a laborer in a gasket factory was great preparation for managing the food shelf inventory.

And this rich range of experience forged a flexible attitude perfectly suited to the lively food shelf environment. Though it may not be a paved road to the pinnacle of the hospitality industry, it works for Scott – and for the Neighbors community that is enriched by the talents and the spirit with which he meets the shifting challenges of each day.