How do you launch a blog? Surely there are as many answers as there are people who have journeyed down this path. By now Internet blogs are far from new. To attempt a different path – as aspiration, a path less traveled – I will launch by profiling an organization I admire. An organization I have had the pleasure to be affiliated with for several years.
Before I break into the profile, please indulge a Google-search bunny-trail story. A few years back, I found myself doing a now routine part of contemporary life, Googling an answer to a question. Google, as we know, is a free library card to the wonders and collections of a modern-day Library of Alexandria. The reason for the search – the basis long forgotten – was to confirm the name of the largest living organism. Being taxonomic prejudiced, I presupposed a mammal, maybe a whale, maybe even a sperm whale? My Google search query was as broad as my thinking was narrow; the answer that came back surprised me. The answer retrieved from a far-off Amazon Web Service hosted database relayed: the largest living organism was a plant, a tree to be precise, trees to be more precise. As the popular phrasing of the day goes: I was today years old when I learned that interesting fact.
The Majestic Aspen Grove
For those in the Rocky Mountain West, the aspen tree is a multi-season beauty. As of this writing, snow is loading the high country and the aspen have only recently shed their autumn golden-yellow symmetrical leaves. The stark white and black trunks stand winter sentinel against snow covered slopes. In the spring and summer, the ever-greening aspen leaves provide a leading indicator of warmer weather, shade for hikers on a summit approach, and all manner of wildlife in general. Simply, aspen groves are peaceful-beautiful no matter the season.
What I learned on that day’s Google search was the fact an aspen grove is a single organism. A specific aspen grove being the largest living organism! Each tree a related clone from a single root system. What appear to be individual trees are in fact one body, connected underneath at the root. I read the Google entry further and came to understand the largest living organism in the world is the Pando Aspen Grove in Utah, our Rocky Mountain West. This grove weighs an estimated 13 million pounds and contains 47,000 trees covering 106 acres. Scientists believe the Pando Aspen Grove dates to after the last Ice Age yet was only discovered a mere 50 years ago.
That, right there, is cool. An aspen grove, while looking like individual trees, are all connected to each other underneath. A given tree’s health is directly related to the health of its neighbor. Whatever a single tree has endured, the rest of the trees were right there with it. What a metaphor for humanity. And it is exactly this metaphor – that we are all connected and in it together – which constitutes the point-of-view of the organization I admire, Community Table.
Community Table is a food pantry established in 1982 by five church congregations just west of Olde Town Arvada. It’s founding name – Arvada Community Food Bank – created a place where individuals and families in need could shop at a respectful, dignified facility to fulfill basic weekly food requirements. A recent 2018 rebranding changed the name to Community Table to affirm the broad west Denver metro reach of their services. The term food bank was ditched to lessen confusion as Community Table is and always has been a food pantry, not a food bank. Both pantry and bank are an important part in the supply chain, but pantries are the last-mile to the end customer – the person or family needing the service. A food bank is more a distribution warehouse needing a last-mile connection – shelter, school, civic organization, or food pantry.
Since its founding, Community Table has been a volunteer-centric organization with the mission of creating a positive impact on the health and well-being of those in need – diminishing food insecurity in Northern Jefferson County. As a perspective on the extent of the volunteers, during fiscal year ending June 30, 2020, approximately 300 volunteers contributed 23,673 hours of service as the happy workforce of this unique grocery store.
Similarly, Community Table funding – the capital that makes it work – is sourced from a wide range of businesses (small local to large publicly traded), churches and faith-based organizations, governments, schools and other organizations, foundations, trusts and individuals. Of the latter, nearly 3,000 individuals or families contributed to the funding of Community Table in 2020. All the forementioned, including a caring and dedicated paid staff, are the coordinated pieces that make it all work – we are all connected.
And how does it work? Looking at the facility, it is pleasantly tucked into a well-kept neighborhood west of and walking distance from the shops and restaurants of Olde Town Arvada, the iconic Water Tower, and one of the newest RTD commuter rail stations – the G Line. Walking inside Community Table you really feel like you are in a modest small-town grocery store complete with dairy, meats, produce, frozen, breads, boxed and canned goods. There are no prices on the products and no cash is required of the customer. Instead, each food type is priced by points. Example: a jar of peanut butter has more assigned points than a can of corn.
As a prospective customer enters Community Table, they are greeted at the entrance to assess need – individual, family, or other. The assessment assigns points based on need with families receiving more points than an individual. Once checked in, the customer is accompanied by a shopper (volunteer) to guide the customer through the store and help the person keep track of allotted points. As well, they’re assisting the customer in selection of healthy well-rounded nutrition choices. Again, no cash is required of the customer. In fiscal year 2020, an estimated 60,329 people were assisted by Community Table in distributing 1.3 million pounds of food.
At the end of the shopping experience, check-out consists of weighing the full shopping cart (Community Table inventory purposes) and turning in a shopping card that has tracked the customer’s selections (Community Table point-of-sale data). The customer and shopper help bag the groceries (donated gently used plastic bags) and away the customer goes. Satisfaction, in many forms, is also stuffed in those same grocery bags. Number one, the customer who might have gone hungry now know they or their young family will have food to satisfy. Secondly the Community Table organization behind each bag will have the satisfaction knowing they made a tangible dent in fighting hunger and helping neighbors. We are all connected.
Volunteering For Community Table
Now that the front of the business has been covered, let’s go behind the scenes to operations. Mentioned earlier, volunteers called shoppers help guide the customers through their experience. In the back of the house there are many more volunteer roles. Volunteer truck drivers run daily routes to large grocery retailers picking up food – dairy, meats, produce, frozen, breads, boxed and canned goods – that have either been over-ordered with respect to expiry or quantity. These products are driven back to Community Table where the groceries are separated and weighed (inventory control) as to type – dairy, meats, produce, frozen, breads, boxed and canned goods. Individuals, businesses (restaurants, bakeries) and the aforementioned food banks also deliver food to Community Table for inventory and distribution.
Volunteer sorters work in two critical areas – boxed and dry goods and produce. The sorters inspect and categorize the products. Example: green bean cans are separated and grouped from pinto bean cans. These products are also inspected for condition and expiry of the container – the bad stuff is weighed and thrown out. Similarly, produce is quality controlled for freshness and condition – again, the bad stuff weighed and thrown out for inventory tracking. From the inspected and classified inventory, volunteer stockers take the products from the warehouse to the retail floor shelves, coolers and frozen cabinet. All performed before the store opens for customers at noon each day of the week, Monday through Friday.
Community Table is a very successful medium-sized business which enjoys and encourages a company culture which would be the envy of any private sector business. The shared sense of mission, the camaraderie of volunteers and salaried staff, the loyalty of long-time donors and supporting companies, all in support of satisfied appreciative customers. You must walk the floor reading posted appreciative customer verbatims or read the annual report to absorb the depth of people helping people in the purest sense. And, Community Table has been doing this for nearly 40 years! In contrast, 51 percent of small businesses are 10 years old or less, and 32 percent of small businesses are 5 years old or less. Further, roughly a third of new businesses exit within their first two years, and half exit within their first five years. By so many measures, qualitative, quantitative and culture, Community Table is a success.
And with this newly planted blog I aim to share business and life perspectives, insights and stories aimed at bringing you the reader along. For we truly are all in this together, and we are all connected in our success.