Priority Bean Counting

pinto beans
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I started this blog to explore my own thoughts and ideas about business accountability. A math geek at heart, I love interesting statistics. Yesterday, I came across some fascinating numbers.

My home town of San Francisco seems like a pretty privileged place. But did you know that of the 800,000 people living here, 150,000 live well below the poverty line? That’s 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 4 kids. Sure, it’s pretty obvious we have a homeless problem. Just walk down any neighborhood street at 6 AM and you risk tripping over adult-sized bundles lying on the sidewalk or slamming your hip into a loaded shopping cart sitting nearby. But despite the piles of people lying around Civic Center, I find the 150,000 data point a little mind-bending.

Yesterday, having finished what little Christmas shopping I have the patience for these days, with a few hours to spare I headed over to the SF Food Bank for a 3-hour shift of sorting and preparing individual meals for distribution. This organization delivers more than 78,000 meals per day to San Francisco NFP agencies that serve over a 150,000 hungry people.

I showed up at the warehouse on Pennsylvania Street that holds about 2 million pounds of food (they distribute about 3 millions pounds per month including produce.) That’s about as much food as I’ve ever seen. It was like a Super Costco without the diamond-studded Blackberries, rows of hot tubs and six packs of shrink wrapped canoes.

The agency receives donations and purchases some products at a steep discount from manufacturers. In the past, most of the food was donated but lately, corporations who have been tightening their own corporate purse strings to meet the profitability requirements of investors, have been forced to reduce their donations to charity. While the SF need for food grew 20% this year, donations grew by only 10%.

This time of year some companies send groups of employees to help out during the day. As a solo volunteer I wound up with a group of folks from Williams-Sonoma and west elm (the initial lower case is part of their brand). We were assigned bean duty and taken to a room with about 6 long tables set for assembly with a large bin for dried beans, two scales, a heat tool for sealing plastic bags, and a roll of pre-printed labels. Andy Bruenig, our very entertaining and enthusiastic Volunteer Coordinator showed us how to weigh the beans to achieve a perfect 1 lb bag and then seal and label them for distribution. He said that each pound of food represents about 2 meals. Then, he showed us 3 very, very large bags of loose beans that each weighed 2,000 lbs and said, “you all will get through most of this during this shift.” That’s a lot of beans! I started to get, um, a little nervous about what I’d just signed up for. Was there time to escape out a side door? Factory work’s not really my thing. Hairnets make me look goofy.

I found a free spot in front of a heat sealer (the perfect job for an OCD), said hi to my fellow teammates and set to work. The process began slowly at first. It takes time for the scooper and the weighers to get the hang of creating the perfect 1 lb bag. But soon, we found our rhythm and were moving fast.

Todd, my labeling counterpart and I began chatting to pass the time. Turns out Todd recently quit his job as a lawyer and is taking a year to travel and find some meaning in his life. He’s gotten pretty tired of the corporate soul suck and wants to visit South America to explore, learn the language and maybe do some volunteer work. Jackie to my right was quiet but we soon found out he is an 18 year old mechanical engineering student at Davis who just finished his exams and had nothing else to do. Wow, I didn’t know cool college kids actually took time out to do volunteer work. I made a mental note to take college kids more seriously.

As it happens, my conversation with Todd slowed and we began to eavesdrop on the conversation of the two gals at the end scooping and weighing. Renee’s life sounded pretty darn interesting. Last year at this time she’d lost her job as a marketing manager at a gaming division of C-Net. Burnt out, she vowed to take the time to do the things she’d always wanted to do like visit her friends and travel. But, she was on a budget and needed to find a way to explore the world and not spend any money. She found Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) and doggedly worked to find farms in Italy where she could volunteer her time. Apparently farmers aren’t so great at getting back to you on e-mail so she had to pursue about 60 farms before she finally found one that would take her. She spent the planting season working on several farms in small villages in Italy in exchange for room and board. She worked 6 days a week and immersed herself in the culture of the towns, the families, and learning a bit about organic farming. Next she went to Nepal to help out there. When she came back, she was so changed by what she’d seen that the American culture of waste was shocking to her. She even found herself sickened by watching her niece’s kindergarten Thanksgiving feast and how much food actually ended up in the trash.

The whole group of us ended up bonding over our shared vision, a vision of a world where the needs of humans comes first. Where we all work, because we love work, we’re physical beings after all, but we do something that means something. We get outdoors, we share, we think about what’s important, we explore the world around us. We brainstormed issues in corporate culture. How the systems of management have sucked the life out of so many people that it’s hard to find the energy and the passion to do good things. How our culture is so steeped in work to generate money that we lose sight of the fact that money is only one source of currency. What about compassion, nurturing, time? And the best part, we helped package 5,271 lbs of beans in no time flat. Wow! What an afternoon.

Most people I know are pretty happy that 2009 is finally coming to an end. It’s been a struggle for many but out of struggle comes growth, new priorities, and discovery of strengths we didn’t know we had. Just the other day my mom was saying “hasn’t this been terrible?” And I said, “you know mom, I know lots and lots of people who have been affected by this in ways we’d always feared but not one of them has said, they wished it hadn’t happened.” We’re humans, we created this for a reason and you know what, we’re finding our way through it just fine.

Peace on Earth to my new great friends from the San Francisco Food Bank. You were a joy to work with and you taught me a lot. Let’s do it again soon.

PS. The SF Food Bank depends on volunteers to survive. February, August, and September are the months they need the volunteers most. To volunteer visit:

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