While scooping 600 pounds of rice, Nicole Tsong gets a good workout by doing good work.

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WHEN I FIRST saw the pallet stacked with 50-pound bags of long-grain white rice, I thought there was no way we could get through all of them, especially with a group of just 13.

I underestimated our abilities.

I was at Northwest Harvest’s facility in Kent to volunteer to pack food — and get some movement in while supporting a good cause. Northwest Harvest is a food-bank distributor, supplying 375 food banks with more than 2 million meals every month from donations, or from food the nonprofit buys.

Northwest Harvest


Volunteers help sort bulk food. Our job was to divvy up and pack rice, scooped one pound at a time into plastic bags, then twirled, sealed and packed neatly into boxes to distribute to families in need.

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After a quick orientation, we put on hairnets, washed our hands, pulled on gloves and got to work.

Volunteer duties range from bundling the bags that go into boxes to scooping. I chose scooping, figuring it was likely physical.

Was it ever.

I stood at a giant stainless-steel bin, where Lonnie, a Northwest Harvest employee, cut open and dumped bags of rice. We had plastic cups to dig into the hills of rice to put in plastic bags. A runner gathered our bags and took them to the packing tables, where people sealed them and put them in boxes.

I scooped vigorously at first, trying for speed while also filling my cup to the brim. I felt each additional bit of rice would mean something to a family, and worked on creating a little snow cone of rice before putting it into a bag. I chatted with Pat and Chuck, my fellow scoopers. Both were new and planned to volunteer weekly.

After a lot of scooping, my right hand was getting tired from gripping the cup, so I switched to my left.

Things slowed down on my nondominant side. I sometimes would miss the bag, getting only some rice in, and would have to empty it and start again. But after I switched back to my right, I realized I preferred my left and stuck with a slower pace.

While I liked scooping, I also wanted to mix it up. I offered several times to switch positions with the runner, but she never took me up on it. I took the hint. Instead, I occasionally walked my bags over to the packers. Even committed scoopers need a break.

Every time we got through our piles of rice, Lonnie would dump more bags into the bin. About an hour in, I did some calculations, and asked him whether he thought we had scooped 400 pounds each. “Oh, definitely,” he said.

Rice is easier than oats, which are dusty, he said. While they occasionally have produce or meat, rice is a staple.

I kept going, motivated by volume. I wanted to scoop as much as possible. I picked up a technique from Pat of pushing rice into my scoop.

By the time I saw other people leaving, the pallet was empty, all the rice now in our bin. Our time was up. I scooped a few more bags and called it good.

Katie, the volunteer coordinator, told me we packed 1,800 pounds, which means I scooped roughly 600 pounds of rice, one pound at a time. No wonder I was exhausted.

I also was proud. I had used my time and muscle to support 600 meals. It was simple work, and a fulfilling way to spend my morning.