Ashland Food Project provides cues for residents from other communities

If you want to make a difference in the world, it's good to start early.

Lily Rose McGoffin, 6 years old and fresh out of kindergarten, spent a recent Saturday learning how to help eliminate hunger in her community.

She was taught by a pair of veterans, Gabriel and Rio Giancarlo, both 7, and their parents, Paul Giancarlo and Mary Shaffer, who are participants in the Ashland Food Project.

Lily and her parents, Mike and Lisa McGoffin, are part of a small group of Medford residents who are shadowing neighborhood coordinators from the Ashland Food Project as they collect bags of donated food from their neighbors and deliver them to the Ashland Emergency Food Bank.

The Medford contingent hopes to learn how to replicate the innovative food program in their city.

"This is a great idea, a great cause," says Mike McGoffin, a teacher at Jefferson Elementary School. "It's easy and simple. Everybody just does a little bit, but it all adds up. This will work in Medford."

How the vibrant success of the year-old Ashland Food Project might transfer to the larger, more complex Medford community is a question being discussed by organizers in both cities.

Project observer Reed Sorenson, who teaches in Ashland and lives in Medford, knows both communities well. "Medford is a more diverse population. Ashland is more communal and like-minded."

"It's good that the people from the Ashland Food Project are not trying to come in themselves and put the program in place," says Alec Lamoreaux, operations manager for the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association. "It's going to take people in Medford to relate to people in Medford."

The Ashland Food Project is developing a comprehensive training package to foster food projects in other cities.

"We want to hand over a turnkey program," says project cofounder John Javna. "Medford is the logical next place to expand. We want to help nurture that. We care about Medford, it's our community, too.

"The key is finding ways to bring Medford's disparate, smaller communities together under a bigger umbrella ... We learned very early that it's not just about food, it's about building community."

The success of the Ashland Food Project is due to a surprisingly simple idea: Establish a coordinated system to regularly collect food from the homes of busy donors and deliver it to existing food distribution sites.

The effort for one individual donor is minimal — buy one extra food item each week to store in a cloth bag that is collected bimonthly by neighborhood volunteers — but the effect on the community is enormous.

Ashland Food Project now contributes almost half of the food bank's supply. Saturday's collection yielded nearly 18,500 pounds of food. More than 1,900 Ashland households, approximately 20 percent of the city's population, participate in the project. Another 170 households have signed up for the Talent Food Project.

The project succeeds through the efforts of neighborhood and district coordinators. A neighborhood coordinator's job is so simple a child can describe it.

"Just go to the door," explains Gabriel Giancarlo. "If the bag's not there, knock. Get the bag and take it to the van. Then we take it down to the food bank and unload. Then we go home and look at our results."

His twin brother, Rio, adds, "We leave empty bags with cards that say our next pickup, phone number and e-mail address. It's pretty easy. It's really fun."

For the Giancarlo and McGoffin families, the Saturday collection is like a treasure hunt. As project cofounder Paul Giancarlo slowly drives along the street, the children race to spot eye-catching, bright green bags on porches and carry them to their van. Rio, struggling to lift an especially heavy bag with both hands, calls out, "Mom, I need a lift!" For Gabriel and Rio's mother, Mary Shaffer, the best part of the morning is the food bank delivery.

"It's heartwarming. It almost brings tears to see all those worker bees."

A hive of activity is an apt analogy. A stream of cars loaded with food descends on the Ashland Emergency Food Bank. Three generations of volunteers scramble to unload bags then weigh, examine, sort and shelve thousands of pounds of food in four short hours.

Standing still in the midst of so much momentum is hazardous, but the Medford visitors willingly dodge bins, boxes and shopping carts to observe the food team in action.

"What impresses me is the organization," says Medford volunteer Sue Naumes. "It's well thought out, so it's easy for people to be involved. It would be great in Medford. What comes to mind are organizations like the Westside Coalition, which already has contact with the neighborhood. Places that are already organized are the obvious places to start."

"All it takes is one person on one block," adds Diane Mathews, who works with community organizations in Medford. "You just do it block by block. It's a great concept, a great model. Who couldn't put out a bag every other month?

"I've lived in both Ashland and Medford. There are active, community-minded people in both places. There are folks in Medford who are passionate about feeding the hungry. If this really resonates for that group, they could be the core."

"Our plan," says Javna, "is to work with groups like ACCESS and United Way to set up a series of meetings that will help bring a group together to create the Medford Food Project."

Discussions with Medford organizations are in the preliminary stages, but the project is generating excitement.

Gary Miller, executive director for ACCESS in Medford, plans to attend the next Ashland food pickup in August.

"We're enthusiastic," Miller says. "We want to take a good look at the project and how their concept of food collection would work in other communities. ... What jumps out is that it's such a wonderful community builder."

"Medford has the opportunity to do a good thing," say Dee Anne Everson, executive director of United Way of Jackson County. "The underlying glory of this project is that you get to know your neighbors again. Our culture is obsessed with social media — this is social media live!"

An Ashland resident, Everson considers herself privileged to be an Ashland Food Project donor.

"It's the easiest single way to feel good that I know of," she says.

Katherine Hannon is a freelance writer living in Medford. She can be reached at

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