Project Open Hand (a volunteer’s experience)

The company I work for has an annual day of service, traditionally held on the day of the holiday party. There were a number of places we could choose to volunteer, and I chose Project Open Hand, a non-profit that provides food to seniors and those with illnesses such as cancer, HIV and diabetes. These individuals tend to live in the Tenderloin of San Francisco, a food desert where access to fresh produce tends to be at a liquor store. This population also, in general, live well below the poverty line where every dollar counts, and who really can’t afford fresh, nutritional food.

Project Open Hand is not a soup kitchen serving hot meals. They provide groceries and frozen meals (prepared with fresh, whole ingredients by their in-house kitchen staff and volunteers) for an entire week to clients. Clients choose if they want groceries or prepared meals. Some people want the independence and control of cooking for themselves. Others, based on their medical condition, don’t have the energy to cook healthy meals and need to have meals prepared for them. The frozen meals range from typical American fair to Indian and Chinese food, all adhering to some kind of dietary guideline (vegetarian, dairy-free, etc.), and clients choose what they want based on the diet prescribed by their doctor. They also provide recipes and nutritional education so that clients can prepare meals from the groceries they receive.

Project Open Hand works with the SF health care system. Clients need to provide proof of their condition in order to qualify to receive food. Eligibility is not based on income, just health needs. Mark Zuckerberg could theoretically come in with diabetes (not that he has diabetes) and be eligible. But in general, it’s doctors serving the low-income community who refer patients to Project Open Hand, and as a result of their work, health care costs have gone down. Because when people are taking care of themselves and eating well, they go to the doctor and emergency room less.

Fun Fact: Project Open Hand serves something like 2,500 meals a day and on average have 125 volunteers come in a day. They have regulars who have been volunteering for over 20 years. That is how dedicated these people are and how much purpose and meaning they find through this organization. It’s absolutely astounding.

As a volunteer, there are many areas in which you can serve. My group was split between packaging food and groceries, like you would at a food bank, and chopping vegetables to prep for whatever meal(s) they were cooking that day. I was in the chopping group because, as you know, I like to cook and figured repetitive chopping would be good practice. It was so fun to be in a professional kitchen with the giant mixers and metro racks full of bulk spices. And the staff was amazing. The woman who supervised our chopping was super sweet, and the chef who runs the kitchen was all smiles. Everyone there was in a good mood and having a good time no matter if they were staff or a volunteer. We laughed and sang to 80’s music as we chopped our vegetables. Definitely my kind of cooking.

The chopping itself was not all that exciting (because it’s chopping) but the volume was impressive. They were making ratatouille that day so we spent four hours chopping literally sink-fulls of eggplants…

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… and bell peppers…

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… and parsley and cilantro.

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It was a really fun morning in the kitchen with good people, helping out a great organization. I am definitely going to go back. If you’re in the Bay Area and need a place to go volunteer for your work or church group or even just yourself, I highly encourage you to check out Project Open Hand. It’s truly a remarkable organization that cares very deeply about the community they serve, taking great lengths to make sure their clients are treated with dignity and respect. And they know how to have fun while they do it. It’s a win-win all around.

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