How do you increase capacity?

2017 High Road Fellow Emily King at Buffalo City Hall
November 13, 2017
Emily King

Capacity, per Merriam-Webster, means “the potential or suitability for holding, storing, or accommodating.”

Ever since I read the job description for the Food Bank of Western New York, I knew my primary focus this summer would be the “Agency Capacity Project.” Or rather, increasing the potential or suitability of member agencies of the Food Bank to store and hold food to accommodate its clients. How difficult could that be? Inherently I believed I would diagnosis whether or not food pantries needed another refrigerator or more shelving. Truth be told, whenever a peer or colleague asked me what I was doing, I almost always repeated the project description without giving a second thought… But, if all that was needed for a pantry to store more food was another fridge, why would the Food Bank need me to perform this project? Brilliant question, Emily! It only took several weeks to figure this out.

I performed a total of twenty-one site visits to food pantries in which I spoke with the respective pantry coordinators and thereafter received a tour of the pantry. The problems each pantry faced resulted consequent to other issues, which likely resulted from other issues. The recommendations I came up with for each pantry were highly individualized and the complexity revolved around many moving parts outside of storage including staff, food supply, type of food distribution, hours, clients and location. Having the luxury of conducting twenty-one site visits allowed me constantly improve my evaluation sheet, the questions I asked and above all my mindset towards having the personal capacity to grant meaningful recommendations. I have much experience in navigating the grey area, but the High Road Fellowship allowed me to put that previous experience into a legitimate workplace.

Interacting with the pantry coordinators has been hands down the most touching part of this fellowship for me. These volunteers pump life into the work those at the Food Bank do and many despite personal challenges, dedicate their spare time to ensure others do not hungry. My Freshmen Writing Seminar first semester entitled “The Pitfall of International Volunteering” taught on how international volunteering expeditions often do more harm than good for a variety of reasons including language barriers, little training and length of time. At the end of the semester I inadvertently passed judgement on many “voluntourist” trips and vowed never to volunteer internationally unless I was adequately prepared and could do a foreign community justice. Why volunteer internationally when I could make more of a difference domestically? However, a huge dot I never connected was that volunteering at home does not solve the aforementioned ills. A large barrier to increasing capacity is the amount of hours pantries are open and I heard from many pantry coordinators that a lack of committed volunteers is what prevents this from happening. Committed volunteers take the time to not only volunteer on a consistent basis, but to learn how to best help the pantry. I look forward to finding a worthy cause back in Cleveland and back in Ithaca to dedicate my services to in order to make the biggest impact.

Concretely, throughout my time at the Food Bank, I overcame my fear of phone calls (telephonophobia is real) via making over 50 phone calls, created a site visit evaluation sheet, visited 21 food pantries in the counties of Erie and Niagara, pioneered a spreadsheet to compile such data and crafted a presentation to explain my findings. But, beyond the tangible, I witnessed the importance of truly believing in the cause you work or volunteer for. Because without that, many lack the incentive to go above and beyond and in the non-profit sector it is those that go above and beyond that make the most difference. We all have the capacity to do so.