The warehouse is mostly silent. It’s Friday at 10 am. Two weeks since something scary called COVID-19 propelled us into a national state of emergency. I arrive at the Feed the Children food distribution center in Oklahoma City. It’s not my first time to volunteer in this building, assembling boxes of food. I still remember a nasty cut from a box tape dispenser from my last visit. But hey, that’s what happens when you get a little zealous making boxes.
The massive warehouse is usually filled with lively groups of volunteers. They come from all over — churches, civic organizations, students, retirees and families — standing together in assembly lines, filling boxes with things like canned veggies, spaghetti and peanut butter. Each box has enough food to feed a family of four. Those food boxes, packed to the brim by a rotating crew of volunteers, make their way across America. Through partnerships and community networks, they reach hands in crisis, easing the burden for food insecure families -- parents down to their last can of food, some with no way to know where the next meal is coming from.
It's a good way to spend a few hours, jamming out to loud music, laughing, breaking a sweat (depending on how fast your box line is moving). There’s a friendly competition to see who can fill the most pallets. At the end of a shift, a winner is announced to cheers. Someone goes home with bragging rights. And the best part is when Meagan, the volunteer coordinator, shares how many families those boxes are going to feed. One shift of “do-gooders” can make enough boxes to feed hundreds, maybe thousands.
But today isn’t business as usual. The crowds are gone. COVID-19 means the warehouse won’t see big groups of people for a long a time. A skeleton crew is shouldering a tough responsibility. They’re keeping the assembly line moving. It’s slowed, but it hasn’t stopped.
I wait in the entrance for Meagan to greet me and go over safety protocols. It’s a little surreal. We wear masks and gloves and stay at least 6 feet apart. It’s only the two of us working the assembly line during this shift. You see, I’m not just a volunteer, I’m also one of the employees. We’re helping in the warehouses because our regular volunteers are sheltering at home. It’s a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-pitch-in moment. Not just in the warehouses, but in America too.
We’re making boxes, packing them, stacking them on a pallet. There’s music, some friendly small talk. I learn a little more about Meagan, a person who regularly keeps armies of volunteers hoisting boxes and smiling. Two weeks into the pandemic, uncertainty about the future is omnipresent but we don’t talk about it. We talk about dogs and music. Meagan just got engaged and she’s wearing her ring on the outside of her glove. It’s a happy time for her, but a scary one too. I ask her how she met her fiancé because I love hearing the stories of how people met. We take selfies for Instagram in our masks and gloves. In a lot of ways, it’s normal I guess. A new normal.
We work together for two hours and fill a pallet. Not a lot but it’s enough to feed 40 families. I leave, feeling a little less helpless about the pandemic. I can still do something. Even a small something.
That’s on March 27, 2020. What I don’t know as I drive away from the warehouse, is that there will soon be food lines stretching for miles across cities all over the nation. That millions will be furloughed or unemployed. And that the pallet of boxes we just made, and ones like them, will soon travel to rural communities, cities, homeless shelters, schools, food banks and churches. Some will reach the homes of restaurant workers who are out of work because of COVID-19. Some will travel to New York, where the outbreak is critical. Some will make it to kids who won’t have school meals to rely on for months.
But in that moment, the thing I do know with certainty is that it’s satisfying to use my hands to “do” something — that it’s good work, creating care packages for neighbors I may never meet. I can only hope it brings some comfort when those boxes are finally opened.