When Eric Darko arrived in Seattle from Ghana to participate in a professional leadership exchange program in 2015, he had no idea that his visit would be life-changing – not only for himself, but also for the people in his community back home.
The 33-year-old biochemist, who works in a regional office of the Food and Drugs Authority, a state agency in Ghana, recalls being “moved” by the experience of volunteering at Northwest Harvest, Washington’s only statewide nonprofit food bank distributor.
“I had never seen a food bank before. The thought of hungry people coming in and picking up food really touched me,” Mr. Darko says. “I am the kind of person who likes giving. I remember saying in our closing meeting [for the exchange program that] I would open a food bank in Ghana.”
Five months ago, he made good on his promise, launching Eastern Harvest Food Bank in the New Juaben Municipality of Ghana’s Eastern Region. It’s believed to be the first food bank in the country with warehouse operations.
Ghana is a country of about 28 million people. Despite its relatively small size, it boasts a fast-growing economy because of natural resources such as gold, diamonds, and oil. It also has a strong agricultural sector, and the government is pushing more growth in vegetable production.
Over the years, the government has made impressive gains in fighting hunger. Yet even with much progress, food scarcity remains a problem.
With two assistants helping Darko as well as volunteers, Eastern Harvest Food Bank is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It provides people in need – generally local residents who are age 50 or older – with basics such as rice, beans, tomato paste, sugar, and gari, a popular West African staple made from cassava tubers that can be ground into flour.
Since its launch, Eastern Harvest Food Bank has fed more than 2,400 people.
“Some days we run out of food,” Darko admits. “We need more donations.”
He started by asking family members and close friends to donate food.
So far at least 54 volunteers, some of whom work for the Municipal Nutrition Office, have given their time to help distribute food. And some return with donations.
The greatest need can be found among older Ghanaians.
“The 50-plus population is among the most vulnerable,” Darko explains. “There are often health issues, and some are also out of active work and they can’t afford three square meals a day.”
One volunteer who’s also a pastor
The Rev. Emmanuel Okyere Otu, who heads the community’s Presbyterian Church, has volunteered at the food bank.
“I was amazed to see the number of elderly people who go to the food bank for assistance,” he says via email.
“It’s a clear indication that they don’t have support elsewhere,” he adds.
Darko was a participant in the International Visitor Leadership Program when he volunteered for a few hours at the Seattle-area food bank. IVLP is a US State Department-funded program facilitated by World Learning, a global nongovernmental organization based in Washington, D.C. The program brings groups of professionals from around the world to the United States for hands-on leadership training.
With only that limited experience at a food bank, Darko relied on the internet for information about how to store and display food, keep basic accounts, and perform record keeping involving volunteer information and key data necessary for accountability to donors and supporters.
But perhaps one of the most difficult challenges he’s faced is the culture. It hasn’t been easy getting volunteers.
Darko explains: “It is a very difficult attitude that we have. Most people demand payment for any service for which they render. So changing that mentality will take a lot of work. In time, we are very hopeful we’ll get more people to volunteer and that Ghanaians will learn to appreciate the act of volunteerism.”
Hopes of establishing a second food bank
He wants to understand the range of challenges of running a food bank before he tries to establish a second one elsewhere in the country. He’s looking for support from an international organization to help him expand.
Despite the worry each week about how to find more donations and volunteers, Darko says the experience has been rewarding.
“You can see how thankful people are. They appreciate it so much,” he says. “That’s the reward.”
• Stephanie Genkin is a media and content strategist for World Learning, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., working to create a more peaceful and just world through education, sustainable development, and exchange. She was a news producer at CNN for 15 years and before that a freelance print reporter based in the Middle East. She earned graduate degrees in Middle Eastern studies from St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford in England and was a Fulbright scholar to Jordan.