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Feeding the need

Getting ready for Thanksgiving can wreak havoc on anyone’s kitchen. But while most people need only worry about finding room in the fridge for one bulky turkey, Tami Steinmetz needs to stow more than 1,300 of them.

And once she tucks away all the poultry, there’s the little matter of where to put the 936 cans of fruit cocktail.

But Steinmetz is decidedly unfazed. Though she has mountains of food at her feet, she knows exactly where she wants to put them. And, more importantly, she has plenty of extra hands to move them.

Steinmetz runs the kitchen at South Kitsap Helpline’s food bank, which provides food to thousands of local needy families. Friday morning, she and a small core of volunteers were carefully stacking tons — quite literally — of fixings to go with the birds, including boxes of stuffing and cans of cranberry sauce, green beans, potatoes and yams.

They want to have the food unpacked and ready to go, she said, because first thing Monday morning, hundreds of people who registered for meals months ago would begin lining up to get them.

“We decided to spread the pick-up times over three days this year, and we’ll see how that works,” Steinmetz said, explaining that she hopes to keep the lines outside short. “A lot of moms come with young kids, and it’s not good to have them out there waiting, especially if it rains.”

To streamline the process, Steinmetz fashions an assembly line. Each stack of ingredients, from the bags of potatoes to the turkeys, is called a station, and each station will be manned by a volunteer.

When the food bank opened at 9 a.m. Monday, a veteran crew of about a dozen kids from the Port Orchard Calvary Church brought the line to life.

Two at a time, they grabbed a grocery cart and stop at each station until the cart was full. Then they pushed the cart outside to the waiting family, often helping unload the food into the car, then returned to repeat the process — a few hundred times.

But as of Friday, the unpacking continued, only with a slightly smaller crew.

Two volunteers were busy stacking cans of cranberry sauce onto pallets, while a third tended to the steady stream of people picking up basic groceries, which Helpline Executive Director Jennifer Hardison said seems to grow all the time.

“We’ve seen a lot of new families the past few months,” Hardison said, adding that fortunately an increase in donations has met the increased need. “We’ve had more donations than usual, and we hardly have enough room for it all.”

“As fast as we put the food on the shelves, however, they’re taking it off,” said Ron, a volunteer who asked that only his first name be used.

He said he started volunteering at the food bank to fulfill court-ordered community service hours, but kept coming back. For about 20 years.

“I feel like they really need me,” he said. “And I like knowing I’m helping people. Especially this time of year, when some families don’t have a lot. This way they don’t have to choose between buying food, or buying their kids Christmas gifts.”

Helping Ron stack cans is Mike, a much younger man who admits he is at the food bank to whittle away at more than 100 hours of community service.

“Don’t let him fool you,” Steinmetz quickly adds, as protective of her volunteers as a proud mom. “He was volunteering before that. He’s a good person.”

Mike admits he does like feeling that he is helping people. Finished with the cans of cranberry sauce, he and Ron turn to stack fruit cocktail just as a small bell rings.

Larry, a retired teacher, heads over to a small window. A woman reaches her arm through and hands him a small piece of paper, which tells him the size of the family waiting outside the kitchen for a cart of groceries.

Larry then begins filling bags with food from shelves in the center of the kitchen, carefully avoiding the neat stacks of holiday items.

He gathers standard items like tuna, peanut butter and spaghetti, then searches for the family’s special requests: laundry soap, and perhaps some hand cream.

“We don’t have any laundry soap, but we do have lotion,” Larry says, grabbing a bottle before pushing the finished cart out to a woman waiting in the intake room.

He heads back to the kitchen, but turns when she asks, “Oh, wait. We’re all out of cooking oil. Do you have anything like that, even some shortening? I forgot to write that down.”

Larry runs back inside and returns with a bottle of Crisco oil, that need easily met.

But later a request comes for newborn-sized diapers, and Larry can only find larger ones. Another woman requests tampons, but only a few are available.

For the next family, Larry hesitantly asks for flea control, fully expecting Steinmetz to shake her head “no.”

But he is pleasantly surprised when instead she asks, “For a dog or a cat?”

Steinmetz said she never knows what she will have or what people will need. At the food bank, the only thing you can expect is the unexpected.

Like the small white dog who managed to escape its owner and find the kitchen, inspecting the shelves for goodies before Steinmetz can scoop it up.

Or the two little kids who came running and giggling through, giving the volunteers a welcome distraction from their work until their embarrassed mom came back to find them.

Before the family leaves, Steinmetz hurries to grab two large cookies from a plastic bin, which is full of baked goods donated from local grocery stores.

“This is my favorite part,” she says, smiling.

Sometimes the cakes, cinnamon rolls and muffins are left over from the day before, she said, but sometimes, stores simply bake too much.

“These are really a treat for families,” she said. “When you’re struggling to put nutritious meals on the table, you don’t buy a lot of desserts.”

As soon as she returns from cookie delivery, one of her volunteers asks for the next chore.

“Tami can’t get a minute,” Hardison says, quick with praise for the woman who started out as a volunteer herself, then ended up taking over the kitchen a few years ago. “She’s fabulous.”

Steinmetz is decidedly more modest, attributing her organizational skills to “just being a mom with three kids. You pick up stuff.”

She would rather give credit to her crew of volunteers, and especially to the community that supports the food bank, even as the swells of needy seem to grow every year. Just two years ago, the food bank prepared only half as many holiday meals.

“Sometimes, you look at the shelves, and you think, ‘Oh my, we don’t have enough,’ ” Steinmetz said. “But then a generous person comes in, and we make it. We just have to think positive, and have faith in our generous community.”

Helpline’s food bank is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m, and the thrift store is open Monday through Thursday 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Fridays 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m.

For more information about donating or receiving food, call Helpline at 876-4089.

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