Food pantries dwindling in county

Five local food pantries permanently shut their doors during the past year, but the number of households the remaining food pantries serve in Jackson County has increased.

ACCESS Food Share Network, a regional office of the Oregon Food Bank, had 22 pantries in October 2007. While five closed, two new ones opened during the past year, for a total of 19, and more than 1,100 additional families had received food boxes.

Pantries closed at Shady Point Seventh Day Adventist Church in November 2007, at Eagle Point Church of the Nazarene in January, at StreetWise at Community Works in Medford in April, at Hope Center in Medford in May and at Springs of Life Church in Central Point in July. The Springs of Life Church had opened its pantry only eight months before it had to close. A new location in Butte Falls opened last week.

Losing one or two pantries in a year is normal, but five is unusual, said Philip Yates, nutrition programs manager at ACCESS.

"The reason for closures varies. It can depend on the community resources, how many volunteers are available, or if they have support from local organizations," said Jean Kempe-Ware, spokeswoman for the Oregon Food Bank.

The Ashland Community Services pantry flirted with closing its doors in February, but Yates said reorganization helped keep the operation alive.

"They had a number of volunteers who couldn't continue," he said.

New volunteers were recruited and the operating hours of the pantry were adjusted.

It takes five or six regular volunteers to operate a food pantry, and when those resources aren't available, the pantry might have to close, Yates said.

Closed food banks forced families to frequent other pantries. A pantry open for two hours a week can serve 50 to 60 families that have to wait for their food, Yates said. Almost half the families that receive assistance from a food pantry in Oregon have at least one working adult, but can't afford food because grocery prices are climbing, Kempe-Ware said. The increasing number of families in need of aid puts extra stress on individual locations.

"In some cases we're having to cut back on the amount of food we're putting in boxes because there's more people coming," Yates said. "The answer is either opening for more hours or finding additional food pantries."

But the resources aren't there, he said. The Hope Center pantry closed when the church put the building on the real estate market in May, Yates said. Some sponsoring organizations stopped allowing space for pantries because they needed to use the room for other purposes, which was the case for the Shady Point Church pantry.

Economic pressures forced grocery stores to order less product and find more efficient ways to sell their wares, and Yates said this marked decrease in donations hurt pantries. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cut 30 percent of the food commodities it allocated to food pantries in Jackson County in the last year, Yates said.

ACCESS volunteers must drive daily to pick up food from grocery stores and restaurants, which costs the organization more in gas, Yates said.

There were 365 food pantries operating in Oregon last year, and this year there are 368, Kempe-Ware said. She said the number of pantries within each county fluctuates, but within the state there is an overall balance.

"There are definitely instances when pantries close for one reason or another, but then we seek others to come in their place," Kempe-Ware said.

Yates said the highest demand for a pantry is in White City, as well as a stable location in west Medford. The west Medford pantry relocated in October 2007 and again in March to its current site in the West Medford Family Center.

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