One Volunteer’s Journey

From Food Sorting and Caterpillar Removal to Chair of the Board

Michaela Tokarski’s first stint volunteering at the Ottawa Food Bank (OFB) was sorting food in the warehouse where she quickly realized the volume of food moving through the warehouse and out to the community was far greater than she ever imagined.

“Previously when I thought of a food bank, I thought of small groups of people in small community spaces, getting food directly to those who needed it. I really hadn’t thought much about the logistics behind the larger network of food banks across our city. It was very eye-opening to begin to be a part of that.”

Michaela was amazed by how much food got sorted when the volunteer group, who enjoyed chatting away, all worked together. From the regulars who refer to themselves as the ‘A-team’ and have been sorting together for years, to those who are just getting started, everyone tries to sort as many cages of food as they can during their three-hour shift.

It was while sorting food that Michaela about the OFB’s Community Harvest Farm and decided to check it out. There, she learned so much about butternut squash, potatoes, cantaloupes, how to raise a hoop house, and more from Jason Gray, the Community Harvest Manager. She was immediately hooked. She brought several neighbours to help out and learn. Her most memorable time on the farm was when she was joined by her eldest teenage son, and they helped with tomato caterpillar (hornworm) removal.

She notes plucking those large pests (which average 8cm in length) off the tomato plants and dunking them in soapy water was “a disgusting and hilarious memory that we now share.” Together, they also learned that this teen loved being out on a farm. He went to the Community Harvest Farm to volunteer a few more times and went on to get a part-time job at a dairy farm. His connection to food and farming is strong even though he was raised in the city, and Michaela credits the Community Harvest Farm with this discovery.

The Community Harvest Farm produced nearly 180,000 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables last summer which was distributed to the member agencies. That could not have happened without volunteers.

Michaela learned there is a seasonal cycle to food donations. In a typical year, more food is donated during the holiday season from October through December, and then this is run down over the course of the year. By the end of the summer, the warehouse doesn’t have much donated food left. Because of this, she decided to start an end-of-summer food drive to help fill the need.

She and her kids now run the annual Fill the Front Porch Food and Fundraising Drive in her Old Ottawa South neighbourhood. Her teenage daughter and youngest son have taken key roles in publicising the event around the community and collecting and sorting food donations. They have raised $5,400 and over 3,500 pounds of food in the past three years.

Michaela joined the Board of Directors in 2019, where she began volunteering as a member, became the Treasurer, then the Vice-Chair and is now the Chair of the Board.

"I never really know going into it, what I personally am going to get out of my involvement with the Ottawa Food Bank, but every step of the way, I try to help the OFB, and I get so much more back in return. It’s not that I’m trying to get something out of it – I’m here trying to give – but it does just seem to work out that way."

From her work on the Board, Michaela notes that she has gained much greater insight into the scope of food insecurity across our city and country.

I really want my kids to grow up in a city that cares about everyone regardless of their good luck or misfortune. I want them to be grounded, and to understand that not everyone shares in their privilege, and that if you’ve had good luck, it is kind to share it, and if you haven’t, it’s ok to ask for help. That’s the kind of community I want my kids to be a part of, so I feel that I have to do my part to help create it.

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