When the first shadow skittered across the counter, Chad kept quiet. But as he reached into the cardboard crate to pull out flattened boxes of Stove Top stuffing mix, the dark shapes swarmed. They crawled over his hands. They scampered up his arms. And they weren't shadows.
They were cockroaches.
Chad -- not his real name -- was volunteering for the first time with Feeding South Florida, the region's largest domestic hunger relief organization.
He showed up at FSF's Pembroke Park warehouse on a Saturday morning in January expecting a rerun of his experience at other Florida food banks: a couple of hours of hard but clean work for a good cause. Didn't happen.
"We're not talking one roach in a box," he says. "We're talking the eggs and a lot of roaches pouring out of there."
But when Chad complained, his fears were ignored.
"How do I know that there aren't roaches in here?" he said, holding up a crumpled box.
"If a cardboard box isn't broken, just put it in the redistribution pile," the woman from FSF told him. Chad also says some of the food was well past its expiration date. But it was the bugs that disgusted him.
"They kept coming up me, so I had to sweep them off my hands and off the countertop onto the ground," he says. "Every box that I was opening was full of them."
Chad says a family of four volunteering at his table was also disgusted. The mother would pick up a can and immediately drop it as roaches crawled across her knuckles. When they complained that the bugs were disease carriers, an FSF employee just laughed.
"Oh no, they're not," she allegedly said. "They only eat the paper."
As Chad sat hyperventilating with horror, he realized he needed to leave. "I was helping with something morally wrong," he says. "Yeah, people are poor and they need food, but they shouldn't be given food tainted with roach feces and urine."
Sari Vatske, FSF's vice president of community relations, admits the organization received a complaint. But she says the incident was isolated and not indicative of the good work Feeding South Florida does. She says FSF receives 35 million pounds of food per year and goes through the donations to prevent any contaminated food from ending up on a needy person's plate.
"I would hate for something like this to make it seem like there is an issue when there isn't," she says. Vatske admits, however, that the FSF employee should have immediately quarantined the roach-infested pallet instead of ignoring the critters. (She says FSF inspected the food after the complaint, found "several problems," and dumped the donation.)
But Vatske's apology comes a bit late for Chad.
"It was one of the most disgusting things I've ever been put through," he says.
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When he got home, he threw his clothes into the washing machine and took a long, hot shower. But the musty smell of cockroaches wouldn't go away.
"It was on my hands for days," he says with disgust. "It's still giving me the creepy-crawlies."