Laughter is already bursting out of the Tauranga Community Foodbank offices as I arrive.

It's first thing in the morning and people are already into the hustle and bustle of what's expected to be a busy day on Brook St.

A flash of high-vis approaches from the foodbank vehicle entrance. It is Robbie McGruer, the foodbank's longest-serving volunteer, walking out to greet me. He's also ensuring the area is clear for the foodbank van, which is heading out shortly to pick up some cakes.

Inside the office, warehouse manager Brendon Collins is moving deliveries from shelf to shelf as manager Nicki Goodwin goes over the latest donations at her desk, holding up a cheque for $5000.


"Can you believe it? It's just amazing," she says, beaming.

"It's our biggest donation yet, this year."

The Bay of Plenty Times Christmas Appeal has been running for eight years now. In that time the appeal has raised more than $694,700. The six-week campaign launched this year on November 10 and is something our team care deeply about, so I'm keen to lend a hand.

Just Nicki and Brendon, who both work part-time, are paid thanks to the Acorn Foundation and Lotto. The other 39 or so weekly workers are volunteers.

"We simply couldn't function if it wasn't for our incredible volunteers," Nicki says.

"And we've got people in every pocket of the building today."

Chatter and Billy Idol singing Mony Mony can be heard coming from the warehouse area, tucked away behind the office. A peek around the doorway reveals a special needs volunteer exclaiming to others how sticky the peanut butter is as her gloved hand and spatula deftly fills containers.

"I don't know how they manage sometimes. These parents with little ones, on their own."

The volunteer is part of a team of five special needs people who arrive every Monday to help. Today, their tasks include the distribution of eggs into trays; filling containers of peanut butter, jam and margarine and making up toiletry bags.

The team's carer says the regular shifts at the foodbank let them contribute to society with real results. Retirees Pam Williamson and Margaret are also volunteering today, and I take a position next to them as Phil Collins croons over the radio.

Brendon joins me at the table with a 20kg bag of sushi rice. He hoists the huge thing up and pours the contents into a large white bucket. My job, he says, is to fill bags with two cups of rice. Easy, I say. "I'm all over it like white on rice." One of the volunteers chuckles, at least. Bad jokes and good banter seem to fit in naturally here.

At the end of the table sits a small bell, similar to the kind you find in a fish and chip store. And much like a fish and chip store, when Nicki places an order for a food parcel on the table, she rings the bell before heading back inside.

Pam grabs the ticket, clipping it to a supermarket trolley and heads down the aisles. I join her.

The ticket tells us we are shopping for a mum with five children under 10.

"I don't know how they manage sometimes. These parents with little ones, on their own," Pam says.

Pre-written checklists dictate how much of each food or toiletry item this order needs. Exactly what people get is up to what's available. When we reach the tinned fruit, I try to imagine which young children would prefer most - peaches or pears? We go with peaches. Then Pam shows me a printout with more than 13 recipes on it which is included in each parcel.

The recipes use basic ingredients offered in a standard foodbank parcel. My mouth waters at the thought of sausage and tomato pasta bake or corn fritters.

It's not long before the parcel - a large cardboard box and a few bags - is complete. Usually, parcels are placed on a shelf in the warehouse to await pick-up. Today though, the mum is already here.

Journalist Kiri Gillespie bags portions of rice while volunteering at Tauranga Community Foodbank. Photo / George Novak
Journalist Kiri Gillespie bags portions of rice while volunteering at Tauranga Community Foodbank. Photo / George Novak

We wheel the trolley out to the entrance where Robbie was earlier. The mum is waiting in the reception area where she can also choose from fresh fruit and vegetables. She is quick to show her gratitude. We offer to help with loading her car but she says she's fine to do it herself and heads off, not before thanking us again several times.

An hour later I'm bagging flour, awkwardly trying not to make a white powdery mess everywhere while Margaret, who doesn't want her last name used, explains why she does it.

"When I retired I thought it sounded like a place I wanted to be. The people, the other volunteers, are cool."

As the special needs team leaves, I take over peanut butter duty.

Brendon tells me you never know how the day is going to go.

"You might get one [food parcel order] in 10 minutes or nine in a row in two minutes. Today's actually pretty slow for a change."

As December creeps closer, everyone here knows the demand for parcels soars and entire days can be spent running to keep up with orders.

But it's not December yet and we've got time for a bite to eat. Robbie arrives back with a van load of cakes, donated from Melba Foods. I'm offered a gluten-free blueberry friand, which goes down a treat.

Pam and Margaret take a moment to have some lunch at the office table. Margaret takes advantage of some avocado on toast, courtesy of donations. Volunteers are offered food, coffee and tea for their services - and plenty of laughs.

Nicki says it's the least they can do to thank the people who selflessly give their time to help the service.

"They do incredible work. I can't thank them enough. I aspire to be like them," she says.

Pam and Margaret look a little uncomfortable at the praise but it's clear they're here because they love it: They love the people and love doing what they can to help others.

The short respite is over as another order comes through. Nicki writes out the ticket and dings the bell, and Pam and Margaret fly back into action.

It's time for me to sign off for the day. I thank the team and walk away knowing my small contribution will help fill the hungry bellies of people who need a helping hand. Because, at the Tauranga Community Foodbank, there are many.