Capital Area Food Bank

by Stephen Wright and David Zelig

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The Holidays are a time to gather with friends and loved ones and enjoy good times, but they’re also an opportunity to reflect on our lives, to assess our role in the world, and to ask ourselves what we’re doing to give back.

In this spirit, this year we decided to do something a little different with our annual winter office party. In the past, we’ve hosted a sit-down dinner, but this year, we wanted to celebrate the season in a way that involved giving, and not just receiving.

That idea, combined with the fact that the party’s date was inching up on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day blossomed into an event that we hope to make a regular tradition.  Before heading off to our winter celebration, the entire office gathered at the Capital Area Food Bank and spent the afternoon volunteering.

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The Capital Area Food Bank is a crucial part of the social safety net in Washington DC. They are essentially the first cog in a wheel of giving that spreads throughout the city and region—supplying food to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other programs. Every year they feed 535,000 families, children, and seniors at risk of hunger in the Washington Metro Area.

The food bank is huge—a warehouse space the size of three football fields with high ceilings stacked to the top with pallets of food. All of it must be packaged before it can be distributed to those in need. This is a massive job, requiring an unbelievable number of man hours. Fortunately, the Food Bank benefits from the work of 23,000 volunteers every year, saving them $2.5 million in their operations, and allowing them to continue to do good work, and spend their resources where they matter most.

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Our office of 35, plus two additional guests, helped chip away at this colossal mountain of food. We split into two groups. One was responsible for packaging bags of juice, milk, fruit, chili, beans, and rice to be delivered to seniors who are homebound. The other group sorted food from crates into pallets of similar food, building stacks of tuna, pasta sauce, and other canned good six feet tall.

The process of working together as an office on these projects was an eye-opener. We never chose a leader or discussed a strategy, but quickly, as we began getting to work, our operational skills as architects and engineers kicked into gear, and the team began to behave as one organism. With minimal discussion, everyone fell into positions, and assumed a natural and highly efficient flow. It was quite a lesson in teamwork, and certainly a team-building moment for the office.

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When we were done, team 1 had assembled 420 bags of groceries. Team 2 had loaded 9 pallets. The volunteer organizer with the Food Bank told us we had just narrowly missed the all-time productivity record.

After the day’s work, we were sore and starving. The coordinator brought us all in a circle and explained how much it meant to the Food Bank that groups like ours volunteered our time. That moment was the most impactful. We got to see, or at least sense, the value our work brought to the community. That will be something we can take with us all year, and something that will unite us as a team as we design spaces that serve somewhat the same purpose: filling needs in our communities and helping to improve lives.

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