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Culinary Volunteer Opportunities

Give back to your community by making a difference through food

By Christine Hofmann-Bourque

Culinary Volunteer Opportunities

Culinary Volunteer Opportunities

Come December, there are two places you're most likely to find Marla Fisher: out holiday shopping or in her kitchen. The time shopping is for her two young sons. The time cooking is spent making a Christmas turkey for the adopt-a-family program at her church, baking desserts for an Air Force fundraiser, or organizing meal donations for brand-new moms in her Texas neighborhood. "I'm from the South," says Mississippi-born Marla. "We find comfort in food. When someone's in need, you surround them with food."

While Marla doesn't have traditional elves at her beck and call, she does have two high-tech helpers at the ready: the sites signupgenius.com and carecalendar.org. These free services simplify planning for volunteers by showing event meal calendars and bake sales and letting participants sign up online while viewing real-time updates on which time slots need filling.

"It streamlines things," says Marla, whose go-to meal donations include Cheesy Crescent Casserole and Chicken Spaghetti. "People want to be helpful." Find eight more ways to be kind to your community, at right.

Head into the fields. Volunteer for the Food Forward gleaning program (foodforward.org), which picks produce from private gardens and public spaces. Last January, the Los Angeles-based group harvested 805 pounds of oranges from one tree to feed the hungry. Many food banks offer gleaning opportunities.

The season for giving back. There are so many ways to use your culinary skills to give back in your community. Start here. Not sure where to start?

Track down volunteer or donation opportunities in your area with the help of these sites:

And remember that many good works are done by small groups of people without websites or formal names. Look for "help needed" fliers tacked on bulletin boards at local places of worship, grocery store entrances and community gathering places such as the YMCA or Salvation Army.

Cook dinner for the homeless and hungry. Shelters and soup kitchens rely on volunteers to cook and serve holiday meals. At California's Los Angeles Mission (losangelesmission.org), more than 3,000 homeless people show up on Christmas eve for hot meals dished up by volunteers. Contact a homeless shelter or soup kitchen in your area to sign up.

Host a charitable pie competition. Organize a pie bake-off in your neighborhood, kids' school, church or synagogue. Charge $10 for each pie or a $1 tasting fee. Donate the money to a food bank or pantry. Find one near you at feedingamerica.org.

Surprise an elderly neighbor. Pack a dozen cookies in a festive holiday tin for a thoughtful treat. Bake cookies without nuts if you're not sure if your neighbor is allergic.

Request canned food at bake sales. Instead of money, ask for nonperishable food, says Bethany Prange of the St. Louis Area Foodbank in Missouri. A plate of brownies could be four cans of food. For tips on running a fooddrive, visit Greater Boston Food Bank's site, gbfb.org.

Drive away hunger with Meals on Wheels. Volunteers are needed to prepare and deliver meals to seniors at the holidays and all year round. Search for a location near you at the Meals on Wheels Association of America website, mowaa.org.

Donate kosher food for Hanukkah. Across the country, kosher food banks such as Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill Food Pantry (sqfoodpantry.org) and Florida's JCS Kosher Food Bank (jcsfl.org) run low on foods to help people in need who keep kosher homes. Ask synagogue leaders for programs in your area.

Welcome a new neighbor. In military communities, families are constantly coming and going, even during the holidays. Drop off a casserole or dessert to welcome newcomers. Because plates and utensils are often packed away, bring along the disposable type.