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Three Hours in Life of Open Arms Helper

The Foodservice News/Charlies crew, left to right, Nick Upton, Adam Griepentrog, Bob Warner, Mary Warner, Rachel Knudson, Laura Michaels, Jill Evans and Jared Pfeifer.

We put our hands where our keyboards are: In other words, instead of just writing about how great Open Arms is, a group from Foodservice News and the Charlie Awards spent a Friday afternoon packaging entrées with two soups and scooping cookie dough.

We were nine of more than 7,000 volunteers who donate 70,000 hours a year, saving Open Arms the salary for an additional 34 full-time staff members. Saving money is paramount for the nonprofit since the weekly meal delivery service cranks out more than 600,000 meals a year.  

Open Arms has been the Charlies charity of choice since the local awards were born 10 years ago. Founded in 1986 for AIDS patients, the nonprofit serves healthy, “medically tailored meals” to people fighting all types of life-threatening illnesses. Caretakers and dependents also receive meals, since they, too, need to keep up their strength and stay healthy.

We were greeted by Austin Lane, an upbeat and enthusiastic trainer who made sure we knew the history of the organization and safety procedures before we hit the floor. Once we had removed our jewelry—no losing a diamond ring in a batch of muffins—donned our aprons and hairnets (no one looks attractive in a hairnet and yet Austin insisted on taking our picture) and washed our hands much longer than seemed necessary, we were divided into three groups of three. The lucky three got to scoop chocolate chip cookie dough onto trays. Although the second task, bagging the baked cookies and sealing them with a sticker listing all the ingredients, was an exercise in self-control. And to their credit they only had to be asked once not to eat the cookies. 

Two teams set up an assembly line to bag five frozen, coded entrées with two containers of soup. There are nine different menus, and we bagged all nine in a rainbow of different colored bags. Although it seemed like it at times, we did not bag all 12,000 meals Open Arms produces in a week. 

Halfway through our shift we were given a much appreciated cookies and milk break.

Along with the donated and purchased ingredients, Open Arms has four urban farms, plus one in Afton, which produces 1,500 pounds of produce, of which about 90 percent is sold in CSAs, Lane said.  The other 10 percent is prepared in the kitchen. 

Perhaps if we did this every day, we might feel differently, but our three-hours flew by quickly. The chefs and volunteer coordinators made sure we were doing our job correctly and having fun at the same time. None of us, however, was particularly good at guessing the names of the bands we were hearing on the play list.

Proceeds from the Charlie Awards—this year on February 9—go to help Open Arms continue its mission of ensuring no one who is sick goes hungry. Our shift verified what we already knew: Open Arms is one of the most appreciative and well-run organizations in community service. To find out more about Open Arms and its volunteer opportunities, go to www.openarmsmn.org. 

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