Jackson County's various Neighborhood Food Projects are combining forces and mobilizing as the juggernaut food-collection system closes in on its million-pound milestone.
"We're calling this 'Countdown to a Million Pounds,' because we expect to reach our goal of 1 million pounds by December," said project organizer John Javna.
For more information about the Food Project, or to become a neighborhood coordinator, pickup volunteer or food donor, call 541-488-6976 or see NeighborhoodFoodProject.com.
It's been five years since Javna and others sat around his kitchen table conceiving of the all-volunteer project, and just over four years since a diverse grassroots crew of Ashland volunteers — from high-school students to seniors at Mountain Meadows Retirement Community — did the first pickup in June 2009.
Now, thanks to the 5,700 families who contribute to the Jackson County food projects, they are just four months away from the million-pound mark, he said.
"When you collect a million pounds of food, people take you seriously," Javna said. "It adds up to more than 76,000 green bags of food that people have donated. That would fill an entire football field, and there would still be 10,000 bags left over to put in the stands as spectators. That's got to be some kind of record for a grassroots food collection group."
The Food Project is a completely homegrown product of Jackson County, Javna said. Although the concept is simple and straightforward, there was nothing like it anywhere when it started four years ago.
Five separate food projects, representing seven cities — Ashland, Central Point, Eagle Point, Jacksonville, Medford, Phoenix and Talent — recently joined forces, forming the largest volunteer organization in the country, he said.
The food projects collect about 55,000 pounds of food every two months, which supports 21 food pantries, he said. In Ashland, 23 percent of the households currently participate, a number that is "unheard of," Javna said.
Javna wants to double the current estimated percent of households participating countywide, which is about 8 percent, and turn it into a permanent part of the county's infrastructure.
Recruiting new families into the donation roster and adding more neighborhood coordinators is key to expansion and success, Javna said.
Neighborhood coordinators recruit people to become food donors and give them a reusable green bag. On the second Saturday of every even month, the coordinators pick up the bags of food and leave a replacement bag for the next time. All the food is taken directly to local food pantries. There already are more than 400 neighborhood coordinators in Jackson County. The coordinators' collection efforts average only about an hour a month, Javna said.
"I can't think of a better way to spend an hour," he said.
Corporate sponsors are joining the project, supplying green bags and cards for promotional efforts at local supermarkets. A club is forming at St. Mary's School to boost the projects' enrollment.
"We're going to get out into the public and talk to people," Javna said, adding that food project "ambassadors" are already speaking with church, civic and school groups.
Community members in Jacksonville and east Medford can expect to see Boy Scouts at their doors with green bags soon, Javna said.
Robert Starchvick, 16, a member of Boy Scout Troop #16 in Jacksonville, has taken on the task of adding 200 new donors as his Eagle Scout project.
"That will bring in one and a half tons more food each year," Starchvick said.
Starchvick's mom is a neighborhood coordinator. He has been busy mapping out which neighborhoods to canvas.
"We had to figure out where there were the least amount ... of donors," he said. "We're still planning where to go."
Starchvick is also organizing his fellow scouts for the door-knocking campaign that he plans to begin in a couple weeks.
"You've got to have people help you," he said.
By October, there will be 13 food projects in Oregon. Others are being formed in Florida, Massachusetts, Vermont, Idaho, Washington, California and Arizona.
There are now 23 food projects in varying stages of development, and at least 10 more spin-offs, Javna said, adding it is typical for project leaders from other communities to come to Jackson County to observe pickup operations firsthand.
The million-pound milestone will be the gateway to the Neighborhood Food Project's national rollout next year, Javna said.
"Jackson County will be showing the rest of the U.S. what's possible. It's the proving grounds for the rest of the nation," Javna said.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email@example.com.