Full bags for empty stomachs

In the 10 years that Vivian Nordhagen has been volunteering with the ACCESS Inc. food pantry in Central Point, the number of clients has tripled — a cold fact that keeps her and husband George packing five days' worth of food every month for 750 people.

"We've got our three grown children doing it, and their seven grandkids," says Vivian Nordhagen, 74, a retired tax consultant. "It's good for them to see the need out there, so they know they have to support the community by doing volunteer work."

Nordhagen says she asked clients what they think of the pantry at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, one of 24 pantries in Jackson County.

"They told us it's what gets them through each month and they don't know what they'd do without it. ... It's a real good selection that we pack," she says. "We make sure everyone goes away with meat and good produce."

The two dozen food pantries — located near every community in the county — are run by some 300 volunteers. They invest 40,000 hours a year, valued at $600,000, says ACCESS Nutrition Programs Director Philip Yates.

The pantries draw their food from many sources, including markets, individuals, churches, the Food Projects of Medford, Talent and Eagle Point and the annual pre-holiday Grocery Bag Drive in the Mail Tribune and the Ashland Daily Tidings.

The brown paper bags can be found in today's paper. Readers can fill the bags with nonperishables, such as cereals, peanut butter, canned meat, pasta, canned veggies or fruit, and hygiene products, such as shampoo, toothpaste and deodorant, then drop them off at any fire station, Sherm's Thunderbird, Umpqua Bank branch, Food 4 Less or any of the five churches printed on the bags.

While food is gratefully accepted, the annual Food for Hope drive is even more dependent on cash donations. For each dollar donated, five meals can be purchased, thanks to ACCESS' connections through federal programs and other suppliers.

Donations may be mailed to ACCESS Food for Hope, P.O. Box 4666, Medford, OR 97501. Pledge forms are also printed on the bags.

The drive is now in its 30th year. Organizers hope to net 30,000 pounds of food and $30,000, which will convert to 150,000 pounds more food, says Yates.

"It's more important this year than ever," says Yates. "In July, we saw the highest number of families come for food. It went over 4,000 families for the first time.

"We're hearing anecdotally that there'll be a lot of extra struggling because people are living with the cutback in food stamps, which is an average of $10 a person. That may not sound like much, but it is to them."

The Great Recession, the most severe in 65 years, has created a plethora of multi-generational families living together to pool resources, including grown kids living with their parents.

"We're seeing people at pantries we've never seen before," says Yates. "They've never been here. We still see lots of people from the building industries, which have not recovered yet."

A new trend is pantries supported by up to four neighborhood churches.

"It's a model we're trying to push," says Yates. "Churches have always been at the forefront with pantries. We are struggling and churches are bringing us more younger volunteers. If we get three or four churches backing one pantry, a volunteer only has to work once a month, instead of once a week."

The Food for Hope drive brings in enough food, Yates says, to not only last through the holidays, but well into the new year.

Vivian and George are among 20 experienced volunteers at her pantry and two of five from Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. They volunteer once a month.

Area churches have joined the cause since ACCESS was created in 1976 to provide services for low-income seniors, disabled and others in the areas of food, housing, energy and weatherization.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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