How fast can you package 100,000 meals to be shipped overseas?
Pretty quickly, if a Saturday event in Georgetown was any indication.
Two shifts of workers managed to pack about 16,700 quart-size bags Saturday in Georgetown. Each pack will feed six people.
The rapid packing came courtesy of an assembly-line production set up in advance by Rise Against Hunger and the Grace United Methodist Church of Millsboro’s Feeding the 5,000 Multiplied program.
Grace Church organized the event after deciding to open its annual meal-packing to the community, both in an effort to feed more people and to foster connections among neighbors. The church donated $19,000 of the program’s $39,000 to buy the food and supplies through Rise Against Hunger, a Philadelphia nonprofit.
Those supplies had been moved into the cafeteria during Friday’s driving rain, said organizer Mike Hall.
“Today, it’s a matter of getting people in and then getting started,” he said.
An assembly-line-style production had been set up before the 180 first-shift volunteers arrived at Sussex Central High School’s cafeteria.
The workers were asked to don red hair nets, creating a scene that looked like a crowd of lunch ladies had taken over.
The volunteers included young and old, students working off community service hours and groups from area churches, service clubs and businesses, including Mountaire, which donated $12,000 to the event.
The first group of tables each included two stations for packing the plastic bags.
Each station included places for a person to load a pack of vitamins into the bag before others added rice, soy for protein and dehydrated vegetables.
A runner took the full bags to a weighing table. There, each was weighed, sometimes with a little rice removed, but mostly with a little rice added.
A new set of runners took those checked bags to a sealing table, where volunteers heat-sealed the bags with a 3- to 5-second press, with the runners replacing empty baskets with filled ones to keep the process moving.
One of those runners was Julian Villegas, an eighth grader at Seaford Middle School, who never stopped moving.
His cousin attends Sussex Central and she told him about the project and invited him to attend, he said.
“They’re moving fast,” he said, holding a couple of the small baskets in his hands. “It’s pretty busy. They move pretty fast and then there’s even more buckets.”
Yet another set of runners pushed the sealed bags into large tubs and carried them to the box packing table.
Speedy meal packing
Everything moved so quickly that packers ended up being overwhelmed several times during the morning. That led Ryan Ehnts of Rise Against Hunger to ask the bag fillers to take a short break.
Organizers tried to keep the work fun, playing energetic oldies over a loudspeaker and counting down the number of bags produced by hitting a large gong for every 5,000 or 10,000 meals.
Sixteen bags filled one of Rise Against Hunger’s shipping boxes, and the organizers touted the finished meals by adding up the number of boxes that were filled.
The morning flew by, with the occasional “ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhh” from the crowd when one of the bags dropped and hit the floor, spilling its contents.
The early crew packed about 60,000 meals with a much smaller afternoon crew filling the remaining 40,000.
Rise Against Hunger will ship the boxes to one of 11 countries, many in Africa and South America. They usually go to schools, which can use the lure of food for the family to get children into the schools.
Ehnts told the crowd that Rise Against Hunger was told by participating schools that more children were coming to school because of the food.
He said it would be about two months before he could tell the Georgetown group where their boxes would grow.
Hall was already hawking the 2024 event — for which organizers hope to raise enough money to pack 150,000 meals — at the first break of the morning.
You’ll come back next year, he asked Jack Riddle, president of Community Bank and an avid member of the Rotary Club volunteer team.
Riddle busted out laughing.
“We haven’t even gotten finished with this one yet,” he told Hall.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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