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Volunteer Diaries: Shelley Miller-Odelson, Jewish Family Service

Shelley Miller-Odelson shares about her life-changing work with JFS's Corner Market

By Sarah Sapeda

Shelley Miller-Odelson.jpg

Shelley Miller-Odelson.jpg

Jewish Family Service has been empowering vulnerable San Diegans since 1918. Through its community programs, transportation assistance, counseling services, and other initiatives, JFS is working toward a stronger, healthier, and more resilient San Diego. Volunteers like Shelley Miller-Odelson help make its mission to move forward possible. She gives back by donating her time to stock shelves and assist clients at the JFS Corner Market, a food pantry on the nonprofit’s Joan & Irwin Jacobs Campus in Kearny Mesa that feeds hungry San Diegans and reduces food waste.

What made you want to become a volunteer for Jewish Family Service?

When I was looking at volunteer opportunities nine years ago, [I noticed that] JFS offered a large variety of services to the community. Many of these were in areas that needed volunteer assistance to function effectively. I had worked as a personal chef for 20-plus years and knew the amount of waste that occurred in the food service and grocery industries. I was looking for a way to help fight the growing food insecurity that was occurring in our community, and I was excited to work with an organization that saved and repurposed food that was otherwise destined to go to the landfill. An added bonus for me was the friends made through the camaraderie of volunteering with others on a weekly basis.

What do your volunteer duties entail?

Merchandising and restocking and client assistance. On Monday mornings, we clean out spent produce, out-of-date dairy, and [stale] baked goods. Then we restock the market with fresh produce, dairy, baked goods, and meats, which have been either donated or saved from participating grocery stores, and fill in the shelves with canned vegetables, meats, soups, fruit, and dry goods, such as cereal, beans, rice, pasta, and protein bars. When we are really fortunate, we also receive household and personal care items that clients can choose from. We also work with clients as they shop in the market. The Corner Market client shopping is based on a point system, rather than requiring money. Clients are assigned shopping points based on family size and can use these points monthly to shop, giving them more freedom and dignity. We help clients make healthy choices and maximize their points by explaining the value of fresh produce (zero points), frozen meats (a point per pound), and fresh dairy (generally a point per item), and lower-salt and/or [lower-]sugar canned and dry items. They may also choose from dessert and salty snack items, but those are priced higher. By allowing clients to choose their own food, they are taking ownership of making healthy choices, and not wasting food they don’t like.

Is there training required?

After completing a background check, a few hours of online training were required. This focused primarily on JFS systems, privacy issues, and working respectfully with the JFS client base. Hands-on training in the Corner Market came from working with staff and other experienced volunteers.

What is the time commitment?

I generally volunteer two days a week, for about three hours each shift.

What was your best day as a volunteer?

The best days are when client shoppers leave happy with the bounty of produce, meats, and other goods they were able to “purchase.” It is also really fun to help explain to a shopper how to prepare something they’ve never previously eaten or cooked with. The thanks we get from our shoppers are endless.

What has been the biggest challenge?

I had been working with the Corner Market for several years before Covid and was fortunate to be able to continue to work with JFS staff to get food to so many more people in need once everything closed down due to Covid. With the Corner Market shut down, we switched from in-person shopping to preparing boxes of groceries for delivery; bagging produce, baked goods, dairy, and prepared foods for daily drive-through pick-up; and assembling boxes of frozen prepared meals for homebound clients. We sifted through a tremendous amount of salvaged produce from donor grocery stores and from Senior Gleaners, bagged fresh and frozen donations from Starbucks, and welcomed whatever was available from Feeding San Diego, the San Diego Food Bank, and any other organization that had food to spare. I was truly amazed by the number of households we were able to help feed every day. From March 2020 to July 2022, the JFS Hand Up Food Pantry was able to provide just over 1.8 million meals!

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