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New conveyor line in Second Harvest's volunteer center makes sorting and packing food more ergonomic

Second Harvest’s new Asuris Northwest Health Volunteer Center provides a safer and more ergonomic setting for volunteers to sort and box food donations for distribution from its warehouse at 1234 E. Front Ave.

Second Harvest Volunteers
Second Harvest Volunteers sort apples on new conveyor line

They will sort and pack food as it passes on a conveyor belt at a convenient height in new space named after a major donor.  A $160,000 pledge and multi-year commitment of support from Asuris put Second Harvest in the position to finish the volunteer center and other major upgrades ahead of schedule.

“The renovations will enable us to accept more fresh food,” said Rod Wieber, chief resource officer. 

There is also space between the front entrance and volunteer center, where people who donate their time can socialize during breaks.  Staff meets with volunteers in that room for orientation.

Groups come from businesses, agencies, churches, schools, universities, civic clubs, youth groups and Fairchild Air Force Base.  Many volunteers are seniors.  Some volunteers come regularly and others come occasionally.  Last year, more than 2,500 volunteers assisted.

Volunteer hours are 1 to 4 p.m. and 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon.  There is a capacity for 30 volunteers in each shift.

Rod Wieber, 2nd Harvest Food Bank
Rod Wieber shows off the new convey line in the Asuris Volunteer Center

The volunteer center is a 3,200-square-feet enclosed room inside the 85,000-square-foot warehouse.  It’s a climate-controlled work room, so volunteers no longer have to wear coats and gloves in the winter, as they did in the past, or be hot in the summer.  Plus, the space is separated from moving forklift trucks.

Second Harvest held a campaign for just over $2 million in interior and exterior capital improvements and new equipment, in addition to $1 million being raised for capacity building operating costs.  Improvements also include upgraded dock doors.

Canvas prints of apples, grains and beef decorate one wall.

The new equipment, which was set up in February and put on line during March, provides a more ergonomic setting for sorting and packing food. 

In the warehouse, a hydraulic bin dumper loads onions, apples, potatoes or other donated produce onto a conveyor belt that takes the product through clear plastic curtains, which keep the sorting room insulated.

Sorters pull out bad produce and put it in a separate chute.  Then the remaining produce moves down the line to the packing stations.  Each packer has a cart on wheels that can be raised to a level so the packer does not have to bend over to load boxes.

Volunteers can sort and pack more quickly with this system than they did before. 

For example, Rod said that a group from Fairchild sorted 20,000 pounds of potatoes in more than four hours in the old process last fall.  Now they can do the same amount in less than two hours.

The sort line can be set up to receive and box food drive donations of shelf-stable food products and federal commodities for senior food boxes.

“Thanks to community and state help, we brought in 7 million pounds of fresh produce in 2011.  We had the opportunity to be given more, but could not process it quickly enough in the warehouse.  Now we can reach more people and more donors with our capacity to sort and package at least 14 million pounds of produce a year,” Rod said.

By the end of the fiscal year on June 30, Second Harvest expects to have distributed 22 million pounds of food, up from 20.5 million last year.  The goal is to distribute 28 million pounds annually by 2016.

“Our local food banks indicate that the economy has not yet turned around,” Rod said. 

“There are still people coming who are employed, unemployed and under-employed—unable to earn enough to meet mortgage or rental payments and utilities,” he said

“The day our services are not needed will be a good day, but we do not expect that day to come in the foreseeable future,” Rod said.  “In the last four years, our distribution has risen 60 percent.”

For information, call 534-6678.