Giving A Little Back Part II

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the work I’d started as a volunteer at the Family Assistance Ministries (FAM) in San Clemente, helping out in the warehouse with whatever was needed and I finished the story having been asked to help out on the morning ride-along in one of the trucks to pick up the food from the supermarkets.

The big day arrived and as Alex was still staying I’d cleared it with Jeff the warehouse manager for him to join in as well. In case you’re wondering whether I’d press-ganged Alex into this, the answer is No, he asked if it would be possible to come along.

So we rocked up at the warehouse at 7:30 and were allocated to help Doug who was driving the old U-Haul truck and then with greetings exchanged, empty banana boxes and scales loaded in and we set off. The banana boxes are very sturdy cardboard boxes made explicitly for transporting bananas (who’d have guessed?) and appear to be the universal receptacle in which to shift supermarket goods; the scales are taken so that FAM can record how much product has been picked up at each store.

FAM have 5 trucks in total, ranging from the largest, which is a GMC 5 tonner with a tail-lift to the smallest which was the 2 tonne one we were in. They’ve all been donated over the years to the organisation by various local companies as they upgrade their fleets and want to help out. They weren’t kidding when they described ours as “old”, it was at least 25 years young and had well over a million miles on the clock and while it might had huffed and puffed a bit up the hills (well wouldn’t you?) it was still going strong. One of the volunteer drivers is a retired mechanic and so when he’s not collecting from supermarkets he also does the vehicles maintenance. The only real challenge we found with it was that the passenger door could not be opened from the inside – the door mechanism gave up the ghost a few months ago and the only parts which they could get hold of were for a drivers door, so they had to go with that. It was a bit awkward, but once we got the hang of it we were fine – fingers were kept crossed that we wouldn’t to make a hasty exit, which given the duration of the journeys and speed we were travelling at, was pretty unlikely.

We made 4 pick ups that trip, all at supermarkets and got about half a tonne of produce, mostly foodstuff from fresh fruit and veg, frozen meat through to bread, cakes, biscuits and dairy. Some shops pre-sorted the food they’re donating into categories (dairy, meat, grocery, bakery, non-grocery), whilst others will just put it all in boxes and hand it over, so the first job when picking up is to check if it’s sorted and if not, that’s where the spare banana boxes come in as we sort it there and then as it’s easier to do at the time rather than back at the warehouse where it’s a little more frantic. The boxes are then duly weighed and the details noted on the clipboard and then it’s off to the next place.

The round took about 90 minutes all told and once we’d picked up at the final supermarket, we headed back to the warehouse to unload and for Jeff to determine which location to take the food to (‘walk-in freezer’ for frozen products, ‘walk-in fridge’ for perishables, ‘tables’ for wider sorting, ‘pantry’ for food to be distributed that day, or ‘Marines van’ as Tuesdays and Fridays are when FAM do a delivery to the US Marines base at Camp Pendleton just down the road. I’ve done four ride-alongs so far and they’ve all been mostly different routes and shops and with different people, who it’s been great to meet and talk to:

Trip 1: Total load of half a tonne as above – Doug is a retired engineer who worked at the nuclear power station out near San Onofre beach, it’s currently being decommissioned having got to the end of its 40/50 year lifespan. He’s a very keen long distance cyclist, who’s twice crossed the US from coast to coast, first time was a southerly route from San Diego in California via Texas, Louisiana and the deep south states to Florida, which took 2 months and the second time more northerly from San Francisco via Salt Lake City, and the mid-west states to New York which was a more ‘leisurely’ 3 months. He’s also cycled John O’Groats to Lands End along the back roads of Britain, which took 6 weeks and another trip was Paris to Istanbul. All in all a very impressive tally of trips, making me feel positively pedestrian in comparison.

Trip 2: Total load of two tonnes – larger shops and longer route with Dixie this time, we benefited from Vons supermarket having a large clear out of fresh fruit and veg, giving us a total of 60 banana boxes of really great apples, tomatoes, berries, etc… Dixie is also retired, he served for 3 years in the Marines in Vietnam, before – in his own words – he “took full advantage of the more liberal lifestyle available to young people at the end of the 60s and early 70s, perhaps a little too much, well according to my dad anyway”. Top bloke 😊 He then ran his own construction business for 20 years or so before moving to work for the Southern California water company for the last 20 years or so of his working life.

Trip 3: Total load a tonne and a half – slightly shorter route with Samantha this one where we bagged a lot of ex-Easter and Passover goodies that had gone unsold, including three banana boxes full of Reese’s eggs and Cadbury’s Creme Eggs – I don’t know where you stand on the whole size and taste debate of the CCE, but to me they seemed more like the old chunkier size but they tasted the same as in the UK, however that is purely a layman’s opinion as my knowledge of both categories is sketchy, not being a consumer of considerable quantities. Samantha works full time for FAM and is usually based at the warehouse, managing the pantry operation, however when they are short of drivers she helps out. She also served in the US forces (Army this time) before having a corporate career with the company who make Doritos (she was VP of the product for a while and so becoming known as Little Miss Dorito). Tiring of the corporate life, she took voluntary redundancy to do stuff at home and then started as a volunteer at FAM about 5 years ago, before being asked to join the full-time staff after 6 months.

Trip 4: Total load just over a tonne – short route with the four supermarkets closest to the FAM warehouse, with Doug again. Biggest haul of bakery goods so far all from Albertson’s supermarket comprising 100 loaves of bread, baguettes, bagels rolls, doughnuts, pastries, muffins, cream cakes and sundry sticky buns. Despite our valiant efforts, however some didn’t make it back to the warehouse, a few went missing in action…

It’s been a very worthwhile and rewarding few weeks with these folk, it’s never been dull, there’s always a good laugh to be had and they’ve been extremely welcoming and friendly throughout. It’s given me a great insight into how people’s lives are lived and enabled me to get in touch with – in a very small way – the ‘real’ America.