No Food Fights!: How to Build Program Capacity

The Rev. Rod Frohman of Rochester, NY, tells the story of a noon lunch program that devolved into a worst case scenario.

A couple of years ago at Third Presbyterian Church, our Saturday noon lunch program had a glut of unexpected visitors, probably double the eighty people we usually feed every Saturday noon. We later learned that a neighboring social service agency, which held a Saturday lunch at exactly the same time, had shut down for a month in order to repair their facilities. The ten volunteers who served the lunch that Saturday were completely overwhelmed. Worried about not getting enough food, two guests began to fight, duking it out on a table, which fell on an elderly lady, breaking her hip. Pandemonium reigned, the police and an ambulance were called, order was restored, but our volunteers were significantly rattled.

This failure is simple to explain: a sudden surge in demand had overwhelmed capacity. A lunch program equipped to serve 80 persons experienced an influx of 160. The result: food fight.

A robust lunch program would have had excess capacity that could be deployed in the face of an immediate call to action.  This high degree of “slack” could be a factor of having more than enough volunteers with ample training serving an abundance of food according to guidelines in a clear, easy to read handbook with an appendix telling you what to do when emergencies—for example, a lunchroom fistfight, happen.

Reduce your program’s capacity and the negative effects begin to pile up. This might include:

  • High burn out rate among volunteers
  • Lower morale among those who stay
  • Complaints by clients of hurried or disrespectful treatment.

Most people who run programs offering food or clothing assistance offer up their number one challenge: it’s the unrelenting nature of the daily or weekly schedule. How can we build capacity when the needs are so overwhelming? Here are some ideas:

1. Offer Ongoing Training for Volunteers. University United Methodist Church in Syracuse, NY offers monthly training session for volunteers. The pantry, often every Friday, invites volunteers to stay for lunch on the first Friday of the month. Volunteers share a meal, evaluate their experience and often hear from a specialist about how to improve their service.

2.Provide Affirmation for Volunteers. I think we could agree that it’s not possible to offer too much appreciation. Many congregations express affirmation at a celebratory meal held several times a year, while others invite volunteers to offer a brief presentation describing their work during the weekly worship service.

3. If nothing else works, shut the program down (at least temporarily). Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn tried this earlier this year. Serving a predominantly Polish neighborhood with a poverty rate of 36%, the church found its food pantry and lunch program overwhelmed by a rising tide of clients. Worried about running out of funding and food and saddened by the death of the chef and departure of a college student intern, the pastor made a decision: the program would temporarily shut down.

For two months during the summer the program closed its doors. Suddenly there was time to build capacity! Volunteers cleaned out the kitchen and brought it up to code, visited other food pantries to learn best practices, and drafted a set of volunteer guidelines.

The result? Some volunteers got angry and quit. Clients were forced to go elsewhere, and when it re-opened, they did not immediately come back. Yet, happily, volunteers and staff discovered a newfound sense of joy in their work.   According to the Reverend Ann Kansfield, “I love being around on Wednesdays and Thursdays now. I never would have thought that managing a soup kitchen requires every last ounce of skill and brains that I have. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Remember the saying, “Take time to sharpen the saw.”

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