Berlin cross cultural stuff Germany Observations Society

How Volunteering Helped Me See the Lavishness of Society

Just as I left the train, the wind got stronger and all of a sudden my jacket seemed like a useless joke rather than something that is supposed to keep me warm. I got out my tablet and turned on my GPS. I have never been any good when it came to finding my way around a place, despite my passion for traveling. My fingers were nearly numb within a couple of seconds while I was trying to figure out in which direction to go. Standing outside, the sky of a heavy grey color and all the traffic lights being out of service, I felt sort of helpless already even though I have not yet started to look for the place where I was supposed to show up to volunteer at the Berlin food bank.

I walked around the streets for a while, asking people whether they could give me any directions, until I reached the entrance to a huge terrain in front of which there was a sign telling me that unauthorized persons were not allowed to enter. This piece of plastic was just a sign but the sentences in German, English and Arabic (wait, where did the Arabic come from?) definitely had something intimidating. Well, GPS instructions are GPS instructions and so I made my way past several trucks and storage buildings of the town’s super- and street markets.

After strolling around some more and finally meeting someone who was luckily only half as lost as me, I reached hall 102 and peeked in a little nervously.

Several other volunteers had already gathered and were waiting for the food to be delivered so we could start sorting it.

The Berlin food bank accepts food donations made of fruits and vegetables from local stores and markets. The volunteers then spend a couple of hours separating the good from the bad so that the good food can be delivered to families in need. Basically everything in the food bank locations, from the furniture over the computers to the kitchen supplies (there is some really good and free food in the kitchen for the volunteering people) comes from donations.

The place where we were doing our service was a storage hall and during the month of November that arranges for quite some shivering. I put my name on the list and received an apron, while seduced by the thought of going back to the locker room to get my jacket.

“No worries, you’re gonna be warm soon enough once you start sorting”, said our team leader and I tried my best to believe him.

Meanwhile the newcomers were explained the rules of sorting food. The cardboard boxes contained all sorts of mixed fruits and vegetables. Each type of food was to get its own green basket. All types of apples in one, all lemons in another and so on. Everything bad that could not be consumed anymore was to go into the red baskets and later end up in the bio garbage can, because this is how crazy we Germans are about recycling. Even food has its own trash can, not to mention the different colors of glass.

Now that we ae already speaking of recycling, let me give you a quick guide through the German system:

blue bin= paper

yellow bin= packaging

black bin= other waste

brown metal bell- shaped bin= brown glass

green metal bell-shaped bin= green glass

white metal bin= white glass

every bin that says ‘bio’ on it= food (without wraps of packages)

The deliveries arrived and we started our work. Two or three people took one box with food and started sorting out and indeed, after a couple of minutes I started to feel really warm, even without my jacket. I am not so sure whether I was surprised about seeing so many volunteers or not but one thing I noticed was that besides the elderly ladies, there were also quite a few people my age. Maybe this sort of activity would sound totally boring to the average young person, but if you ask me, it is a great way to get to know new people, including internationals. You never know whom you end up working with and while you are sorting, you can just as well engage in conversation.

It was absolutely astonishing to see the amounts of food that the markets were giving away. We were quite lucky that they decided to donate it to us, because otherwise all of this would end up in the trash. I have seen several documentaries about the food bank and the people who made use of them but this was the first time I was actually part of this.

Some of the things we got were nearly rotten and all we could think was what was going on in those corporation’s heads? How could you donate a bag of almost black carrots?

But on the other hand there were so many fruits and vegetables that were perfectly fine, that we couldn’t stop being surprised about how carelessly some of the shops are with their food. In most cases all of this ends up in the trash! I mean c’mon, so many of the tomatoes I was sorting were not even fully ripe yet and if it wasn’t for the food bank they would all have been thrown away! Unbelievable…

I mean I can understand this if we are talking about packaged things like cut fruit salad with an exact expiration date but when it comes to loose fruits and vegetables? Why do they think they can’t sell them? Not that I am not grateful for the donations but it still makes me wonder.

That reminded me of a conversation I had with my school friends during lunch last year. Someone of us talked about how so many governments in the world just burn excess (good) food or crops and at the same time tell us how it is impossible to feed the hungry. Really?  Looking at the hundreds of boxes of good food we sorted out today I think something completely different.

I think that once you get to participate in such an event, you can truly understand how lavish society is and how so many don’t appreciate the presence of resources like food. This is where our parents’ talks of “children in Africa are starving and you don’t want to finish your dinner” make absolute sense.

Volunteering is a great thing. Especially if you know you can help those who really are in need. You get to spend time productively, receive free warm meals like today’s rice with meat and strawberry juice and get to know new people. Indeed very satisfying. So if you live in Berlin (or anywhere else in the world), don’t hesitate and join the good cause! 🙂


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