If you have a kid in a sport or activity that’s done volunteer work, chances are they did that work at Feed My Starving Children in Chanhassen. Every year up to 100,000 students and adults volunteer there to pack food that’s sent to hungry or malnourished children and families around the world.

The organization has sent food to 104 countries while offering a venue for kids as young as 5 years old to volunteer. For many of those kids, it’s their first experience with volunteering, exposes them to the realization that there are kids across the globe who don’t have access to food, and drives home the message that even one person willing to donate a couple hours of time can make a positive difference.

Last week I talked with Jonathan Bengtson, Chanhassen Site Manager, about how the organization is continuing its mission during the pandemic. After closing for about a month last March due to COVID-19, Feed My Starving Children transitioned to staff only to continue providing meals, and since the end of July, has been open to volunteers.

“We have seen a huge increase in demand since the pandemic started. Partners that we haven’t heard from in a while are putting in requests,” Bengtson said. “We call these ‘food insecure areas’ where they can’t count on a consistent supply of food or a consistent means to get food. There are so many situations and areas that were on the edge. They were doing good, but then COVID and the challenges that COVID brought with it plunged them across the line to where they need help.”

People who volunteer measure items such as rice, seal the food in pouches, and box meals so they’re ready for shipment. The food primarily goes to developing nations.

“Volunteers are physically involved in the process. One great thing about the process is you get to turn hunger into hope with your hands because you are doing the work,” Bengtson said. “Sometimes with nonprofits, you are involved in the mission more from a financial support, which we also appreciate, but we have volunteers directly involved by packing food.”

Feed My Starving Children has two other metro locations, Eagan and Coon Rapids, in addition to three locations in the Chicago area, one outside of Dallas, and one in Mesa, Arizona. More than 1 million people volunteer across all of the locations each year. Bengtson said the volunteers often interact with staff and feel good about the work they’re doing.

“There are a couple of reasons why it’s good for local people to volunteer. First is when you can say, ‘I actually packed the food.’ You feel more engaged with the mission when you see you are directly impacting peoples’ lives,” he said. “We also want to feed the spirit. Volunteers serving with us bring different experiences and scenarios. We love being able to engage with them. It builds a good community.”

Each meal costs the organization less than 25 cents. This enables $88 to feed one child for a year and $365 to feed a family for one year.

“We do our best to be great stewards, financially, of the support we receive,” Bengtson said. “We pour more than 90 percent of all the funds that come in directly into the food program. We don’t have a lot for overhead.”

Prior to the pandemic, Feed My Starving Children hosted 160 volunteers in the facility at a time. The limit is now 70 to allow for social distancing. Groups of one to five people can sign up online for a two-hour shift. There are four shifts throughout the day, with about an hour in between for cleaning and sanitizing.

Larger groups, like youth sports teams, can sign up for multiple slots or call the location directly to get a block of spaces reserved. Each table has five volunteers who work together, but they are socially distanced from other tables. Volunteers wear masks, have a verbal symptom screening to enter the facility, and have their temperature checked using a contactless thermometer.

“We welcome volunteers to join us and help us pack food,” Bengtson said.

Brett Martin is a guest columnist who’s been a Shakopee resident for over 15 years.

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