If my eight months here at Virginia Tech have taught me anything so far — I promise they have, Mom and Dad! — it’s that the students at this school truly treasure their motto Ut Prosim, or “That I May Serve”.

Before coming to Tech, I was unaware that universities even had their own mottos let alone one that the students embody so deeply that it literally becomes their lifeforce. (No kidding…Ut Prosim tattoos are totally a thing).

So when the VT Food Science Club recently scheduled a day to volunteer at the Southwest Virginia branch of Feeding America, I signed up right away. The nationwide organization strives to eradicate hunger locally by distributing donated and readopted food to those in need. What better way to live out “Ut Prosim” than by providing nourishing meals to those who need them the most?

ut prosim

Photo courtesy of faswva.org

Last year, the organization distributed a total of nearly 21 million pounds of food to the 26 counties in the Southwest Virginia region. This year, I was determined to help Feeding America reach (and hopefully exceed!) this goal yet again.

Just being in the warehouse bustling with the determination of dedicated volunteers moved me. Little did I know, though, that by the end of the day, this experience would teach me more about what it means to be a Hokie, a community member, and a responsible human being.

ut prosim

Photo by Sophie Pinton

The work you do at a food bank is gratified by those you help.

James Andrews, the Quality Assurance Coordinator and the super-passionate, super-full-of-life staff member who taught us about all things Feeding America, told us that the food we worked with that day (a Saturday) would be on the tables of those in need by Monday.

As I sorted through the canned fruits and vegetables, I realized that in just a few days, these very same products would be filling the tummies of children, parents, and grandparents who might be living right down the street. Knowing this filled my heart to the brim.

We throw away too much food too soon and too often.

As consumers, we tend to check the “best by” date to see if the food has spoiled and proceed to chuck it into the trash if this date has passed. But get this: The “best by” date has nothing to do with whether or not the food will make you sick if you eat it a day late—it simply indicates when the product will be at its peak quality. In fact, if the food is stored properly, it can be eaten after this date without losing its color, taste, texture, or flavor.

ut prosim

Photo by Sophie Pinton

We used the charts (like the one show above) posted around the warehouse to identify whether or not the food could be distributed, and I was in awe of how much edible food we kept from being thrown away simply because we had a newfound understanding of food labels.

Working at Feeding America helped me realize that I am definitely guilty of tossing away packaged foods that are still fine to eat. Even worse: I know I’m not the only one who does this. One study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that almost 90% of Americans throw out food based on the “sell by” dates because they think they are an indication of food safety.

Moral of the story: educate yourself on the true meaning of expiration dates before you carelessly toss a perfectly edible box of pasta or bag of beans. Those could offer someone—many people, actually—wholesome, filling meals.

Working with others in a food bank strengthens teamwork skills and builds new friendships.

As the other Food Science Club members and I stood alongside one another in an assembly-line formation, we cleaned the cans with sanitizing wipes, checked them for leaks or dangerous dents, verified that they were still usable, and arranged them in boxes of similar goods.

ut prosim

Photo courtesy of faswva.org

Together, we learned the health and safety protocols of the Feeding America organization. Together, we lifted and stacked boxes filled to the brim and moved them into the storage room. Together, we laughed with each other, helped each other, and got to know each other.

Together, we were a machine—an efficient team on a mission to package hundreds of meals for families all across the region. Now when I see these same friends around campus, I know that we accomplished Ut Prosim and something even greater.

When you find something you love to do, stick with it, and give it your all.

Here’s a prime example of someone already doing this: The already-mentioned, big-hearted Mr. James Andrews, who has been working at Feeding America Southwest Virginia for nearly 12 years. Trying to find a photo of him without a huge grin? Not gonna happen.

James said that working at Feeding America is never about the money. “It’s about knowing that when I leave here food will be on somebody’s table,” he said in a Roanoke Times article last May. “Once I got the job and started working, I found out that this was my purpose in life.”

James’ blissfulness was also shared though his mantras. I wish I had written down all of his feel-good sayings, but here are some of my favorites that show just how much joy James spreads in his daily life:

  1. Stay close to positive people; they’ll keep you in a better mood.
  2. Everyone has issues. Try to understand them, and if you can’t, learn to respect them.
  3. If someone doesn’t know how to treat you right, “kiss ’em goodbye!”
  4. You’ll never get today back again. Live in the present. Experience each moment.
  5. Wake up, be yourself, and choose to be happy each day.

If James’ story and the lessons I learned at this food bank haven’t given you all sorts of feels yet, check out this inspiring video that Feeding America put together to spread awareness of the group’s cause. I’m sure you’ll be signing up to volunteer at your nearest location soon after.