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MailTribune.com
  • Food Projects of Jackson County reaches 1 million pounds

  • It took less than five years for the five Food Projects of Jackson County to collect more than 1 million pounds of food for hungry people in Southern Oregon.
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  • It took less than five years for the five Food Projects of Jackson County to collect more than 1 million pounds of food for hungry people in Southern Oregon.
    The Food Projects in Medford, Ashland, Eagle Point, Phoenix and Talent hauled in about 65,000 pounds of donated food Saturday, about 30,000 pounds more than needed to surpass the million-pound mark, said project organizer John Javna.
    "Hitting a million pounds is a big milestone for us, not just because it's a lot of food, but it demonstrates to the people who would be wondering whether a new idea is a good idea that it really works," Javna said. "Our job is to be a bridge between people who want to help and the institutions that exist, the food pantries ... the distributors."
    Javna and a diverse grassroots crew of Ashland volunteers — from high-school students to seniors at Mountain Meadows Retirement Community — did the first food pickup in June 2009.
    The project utilizes neighborhood coordinators who distribute reusable green bags to neighbors. Every two months, on the second Saturday of every even-numbered month, neighbors fill the bags with nonperishable food items and coordinators pick up the bags for delivery to local food banks.
    "We're not reinventing the wheel," Javna said, but considering that nothing like the Food Project existed in the entire country before Jackson County's volunteers put the plan into action, the group invented something arguably just as useful.
    Since the Food Projects of Jackson County started, dozens of similar projects have spurted up around the country, Javna said.
    And it's not all pumpkin-pie mix and cream-of-whatever soup like food donations of yesteryears. The Food Projects' green donation bags are filled with toothbrushes, soaps, high-grade cereals and breads, pasta sauces, candy canes, peanut and almond butter — anything that can be found in a grocery store makes it into these bags.
    "Food is such an important issue ... just making sure there is plenty for everyone," said neighborhood coordinator Angela Stuhr, 47, of Medford, who has been with the city's Food Project since its inception.
    "It feels almost effortless for people who are participating, because each person does just a little bit of everything," said Stuhr, who collects from 22 donors in her neighborhood. "You're at the store, and you just get one extra thing; it's so easy for people."
    In addition to Stuhr, there are 487 other neighborhood coordinators across the county, Javna said, all collecting from about 5,700 households.
    The food projects collect about 55,000 pounds of food every two months, which supports 16 food pantries in Jackson County, he said. In Ashland, more than 20 percent of households participate, a number that is "unheard of," Javna said.
    The first year of the project, which was limited to Ashland, brought in 39,000 pounds of donated food, Javna said.
    When the project went county-wide, it collect about 120,000 and 330,000 pounds the following two years. This year, about 330,000 pounds has been collected, Javna said.
    "Next year, it'll be more. It keeps growing, because the longer we're here and the more people get familiar with it, the more people join," Javna said.
    "This is about building community, it's not just about food," said Phillip Yates, program director for ACCESS Inc., where the Medford Food Project's donor drive was held Saturday.
    Yates is the logistics guru for getting all of the Food Projects' donations delivered to food pantries around the county.
    "When the Ashland Food Project emerged a few years ago, it really changed our business model," said Pam Marsh, manager of Ashland Emergency Food Bank.
    Saturday at the Ashland Emergency Food Bank, Marsh was busy trucking arm loads of donated food being dropped off by neighborhood coordinators.
    "It provides a predictable, stable source of food for our shelves," she said, adding the food project accounts for about one third of all the donations that come through the Ashland Emergency Food Bank's doors annually.
    According to ACCESS estimates, one meal is equal to about 1.2 pounds of donated food, Javna said, making the 1 million pounds collected equal to about 833,333 meals.
    "What's good about this is, whatever level of volunteering a person wants to do, we've got it, at every level. And at every level of participation they are absolutely essential ... there is no hierarchy. Every single person is essential."
    Neighborhood coordinators Joan and Carl Jacobson of Medford, who are in their 80s, collect from 22 neighbors every two months, they said.
    It used to be 30, Joan Jacobson said, but some people moved away.
    "We have such a wonderful neighborhood. ... We've just had tremendous cooperation," she said. "And really, 30 wasn't much more work. We need to sign more people up."
    Hauling in about 65,000 pounds this month was huge, Javna said.
    "But the December pick-up is always the largest. In December it always goes up, because this is the time of year when traditionally people are thinking about sharing," he said. "What's important is ... it stays up for February, which is when it starts getting critical for food pantries."
    Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or swheeler@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwriter_swhlr.
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