ELKO – On a sunny Thursday morning in July, vehicles are lined up on Water Street in front of Friends In Service Helping, stretching down to Fifth Street Bridge.
At 9 a.m., Coz, a volunteer with FISH, walks to a line of red cones in the driveway and waves to the drivers. He moves the cones to allow the first few cars into the parking lot and on their way to getting a food box for the week.
Eligibility coordinators Maria Grant and Mariah Espitia speak to drivers as they inch their way up the driveway, asking a few questions to learn about the size of the family and their needs for the day.
Meanwhile, about 10 employees and volunteers work inside the food bank to organize and pack boxes of produce, cereal, canned and boxed goods, and dairy and baked goods as they are ordered.
“We need two ones,” Tammy King, food bank manager, calls out to the ladies waiting to hear the orders. Immediately, volunteer Mira Kurka fills up a grocery bag with non-perishables and places bread and pastries onto a freshly sanitized cart.
Hunger case manager Raquel Salaz and volunteer Linda Ridge, who are stationed inside the large food storage room, listen for King’s numbers. As soon as they hear the orders, they pack boxes with cereal and dairy products and load them onto another sanitized cart.
Volunteer Cheryl Smith then pushes the carts to a waiting vehicle where they are loaded in the trunk next to a box of produce by volunteers Meadow Reid and George. Then Cheryl sanitizes the carts for the next order.
By 12:30 p.m. on July 9, about 200-300 boxes of food and produce were given to needy families thanks to donations from multiple organizations, local grocery stores and individuals who contribute to food boxes or buy a bag of food in the check-out line.
For the staff and volunteers who spend hours preparing food to distribute to feed a family, and then deliver it to those in need, the reward is the job itself.
Farmers to Families drive-up or walk-up program on Thursdays is one of the busiest days at FISH, and requires 10-15 volunteers to serve clients, according to King.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March there has been a surge in the need for services at FISH. In June, the organization assisted 341 clients.
“There is a definite increase,” said Sherry Smith, executive director.
FISH’s service area expands out of Elko and Spring Creek to other rural parts of Nevada, including the tribal bands of the Te-Moak Western Shoshone and communities such as Battle Mountain, Ely, Carlin, Crescent Valley, Jackpot, Owyhee and Wells.
The food bank is stocked with groceries from many sources, including the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elko and Spring Creek grocery stores, along with community donations of food and money.
“We receive numerous items from grocery stores,” Smith said. “Milk, eggs, bread, fruits, vegetables, pastries. Maybe they over-ordered on something, and so it doesn’t go bad it can come here.”
Inside the produce box distributed on Thursdays are potatoes, apples, lettuce, celery, carrots and onions. Meat and dairy products are added along with boxed goods, canned food and pastries.
Additionally, FISH prepares to-go lunches from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for those in need. Other services offered include emergency food assistance, monthly senior food boxes, aid for the homeless and stranded travelers, and the Samaritan House Emergency Shelter, to name a few.
It takes a lot of planning for Farmers to Families day. Cheryl Smith and Mira Kurka credited Tammy King’s organizational skills for creating the well-oiled machine that operates on Thursdays.
“Tammy is the best organizer,” Kurka said. “She figures out everything and makes it go smoothly. It’s a lot of prep before and afterward.”
Food items and quantities change every week, which King works into the planning, Kurka added.
“Depending on what we have, that changes day-to-day,” she said. On this particular Thursday, FISH had 100 more boxes of produce to hand out than usual.
If there is produce about to spoil, volunteer CJ takes it home to his animals, Kurka noted. “Nothing goes to waste, and that’s a good thing.”
Cheryl Smith, who served on FISH’s board for five years, has volunteered for many years, watching the organization grow and broaden its services.
“I’ve seen amazing things happen when Sherry came on board,” Cheryl Smith said, praising the team of employees and volunteers. “They are so innovative, adapting to things like COVID-19. They really know their stuff, and they really care about the individual.”
The pandemic also brought other changes to FISH. A sanitizing mister is used throughout the FISH building, including the thrift store, food bank and office areas. Food delivery carts are sanitized after each use, and all employees and staff wear a mask.
On this day, staff and employees wore brand new, transparent plastic masks designed to prevent airborne particles but making it easier to understand words and see facial expressions for clients and staff alike.
“Those are a little more personal,” Sherry Smith said. “You can actually see that somebody is smiling, or if somebody needs to read lips a little bit. [The clients] can definitely see the staff and volunteers [better].”
It’s the people who keep the well-oiled machine running like clockwork, King stated.
“My volunteers are awesome,” she said. “They’re the ones who pull this off every day.”
For those who work and volunteer at FISH, it’s not just delivering food but also giving back to a community in need.
For about five years, Linda Ridge has volunteered at FISH, usually on Thursdays, and is looking forward to spending more time there now that she is retired.
“I love it. I feel it’s my ministry to help people,” Ridge said. “My favorite part is when I can interact with the clients. I really feel it’s our responsibility to do as much as we can in our city for our city.”
Meadow Reid volunteers three days a week, serving with her mother and grandmother in the kitchen or the food bank.
“I like volunteering and helping,” Reid said. “On Mondays and Tuesdays I come with my grandma and make lunch packs with her. I love it here. I look forward to it.”
Salaz, who has worked at FISH for more than a year, said the goal is to help others in need and see them leave with food to feed their families.
“It’s great helping people. When they drive out with their food box, they’re happy about the food they get,” Salaz explained.
“It’s so fulfilling to help somebody who needs that assistance,” Maria Grant said. “We all need it, regardless of what’s happening in our lives.”
Mariah Espitia agreed with Grant and Salaz.
“I enjoy the people I work with; I enjoy it all around,” Espitia said. “It’s nice when they get a box of food to those who actually need it. You get a feeling of relief because they are getting what they need.”
Below is a gallery of the staff and volunteers at FISH who serve those in need.