Grocery volunteer group disbands

Technology replaces human touch in grocery shopping service for home-bound customers.

Volunteers participate in their going-away party. Longtime volunteers included Maita Hagedorn, Nancy Backous, Tracy Killgrove, Dee Fisher, Shannon Kilness, Wanda Alexander, Glenna Hendrix and Lana Hart.

Volunteers participate in their going-away party. Longtime volunteers included Maita Hagedorn, Nancy Backous, Tracy Killgrove, Dee Fisher, Shannon Kilness, Wanda Alexander, Glenna Hendrix and Lana Hart. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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The longest-running volunteer in the weekly shopping service at Walla Walla’s Harvest Foods traces her tenure in the program back to the days before “paper or plastic” was a standard query in the checkout line.

Every week for 25 years, Dee Fisher has either called homebound people to take their grocery orders, loaded a shopping cart full of the requested items, or both.

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Clerk Mike Miller scans the groceries in the 45 individual orders from homebound people through Walla Walla’s Harvest Foods shopping service. Every Thursday, Miller is scheduled on a four-plus-hour shift specifically designed to process the special orders.

But the team of helpers who have made the service a staple of the independent retailer has shrunk over the years. Without new volunteers joining, the group has disbanded. In their place store owners are leaning on technology to lend a helping hand.

While assistants from Walla Walla’s senior center, The Center at the Park, will help over the next four to six weeks, store owners Nolan and Kathleen Lockwood will work to install an automated system to keep the program going. The new program will likely come with a fee for those who use it, but it may be the only way to continue a needed service, as volunteers are in shorter supply.

“People just do not have time any more,” Nolan Lockwood said. “Everybody — whether it’s business or family or organization — is just doing more with less.”

The changeover is a big one for the Southgate grocery store. Harvest Foods has long set itself apart with in-store attractions — live music, wine tasting events, live rabbits around Easter and bill-paying services inside, to name a few. The delivery service was another piece to that. But in a sign of the ever-changing times, survival of the service may depend on some form of automation.

Lockwood said he’s working with a firm on software that will give customers access to 8,000 items in the store. Details of pricing, payment processing and much more will be fine-tuned before the switch is made.

Previously open to those who were unable to get out of the home, the service may now expand to anyone with a demand for personal shopping.

“If we can’t get people to come to the store, we’ll bring the store to the people,” Lockwood said.

He knows the need for the service is there.

For an estimated 30 years, volunteers have spent every week, except for Thanksgiving week, making calls to local residents in need and compiling their grocery lists. Between Walla Walla and College Place, the number on the current list is about 80 residents. An average of 46 a week use the service, Lockwood said.

The program was originally started through the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, funded by the state and offered to shut-ins who met the requirements for the service.

When funding to RSVP was cut several years ago, a group of loyal volunteers who had already been providing the service for years felt the need to carry on.

“Most of the people on my list are in their 90s,” said volunteer Maita Hagedorn. “It may be the only call they get all week.”

Hagedorn initially started through the RSVP program as a substitute 13 years ago, about the same time as fellow volunteer Tracy Killgrove.

A lot of the users don’t have family and can’t easily get out of the house. The weekly conversations require a lot of detail in the grocery orders. If a customer needs bread, volunteers have to determine what kind. Brand name or in-store brand? On sale or full price? Some users know exactly what they want.

Every Wednesday, seven volunteers make calls to the people signed up for the service. Five shoppers — three of them also from the group of callers — convene at the grocery store the next day to do the shopping. Once the orders are scanned, paid for and boxed, Harvest Foods delivers them.

The system will largely remain the same with technology, except that users will make the requests via computer. Those who don’t have online access can still call in the orders, possibly with a fee as details are worked out.

The volunteers have been preparing their customers for the switch since deciding to end the program two months ago, Killgrove said. “There’s been a lot of tears,” she said. “But a lot of them were saying this was a long time to receive a free service.”

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