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Donations by the ton

Under the name of the Ashland Food Project, a friendly army of 50 volunteers has begun collecting food from some 400 Ashland families and taking it to the Ashland Emergency Food Bank, resulting in a landslide of 3,350 pounds of food Saturday, its first dropoff day.

"They've filled our (intake) shelf six times already," said AEFB president Ann Marie Hutson. "This allows us to increase by one item of what we give families and that's especially important in summer when kid don't get school lunches. This is such a gift. It's absolutely amazing."

Organized over the past six months under the slogan, "You want to help, we want to make it easy," the AFP has pioneered a system which is not an occasional "food drive for the needy," emphasizes John Javna, one of its leaders, but rather is an ongoing system for "making sure our neighbors eat well."

"This might be the first system like this in the nation, with a neighborhood-based infrastructure to share food, based on the idea that we're all responsible for taking care of our neighbors," said Javna, a leader several years ago in the creation of the ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum,

Picking up food Saturday on Faith Street with their little red wagon, twins Curtis and Adam Jones, volunteer organizers for their neighborhood, said they donate one dollar of their $5 weekly allowance to buy food for AFP, then two dollars go to savings and two more dollars for spending.

Their mom, Liz Jones, explained that neighbors who become donors agree to buy one item a week, then the volunteers pick it up (at a time arranged by e-mail) every eight weeks. Every 300 donors mean an addition of one ton of food a month — and the AFP is aiming for at least 900 donors.

Joanie Keller-Hand, who donated to their wagon, says she's always given food but "this is a systematic, easier way and I wanted to be involved. We've lived on this street a long time and can't say we know all the neighbors. This brings the neighborhood together."

The boys had filled their wagon with imperishables such as peanut butter, crackers, corn muffin mix, pasta, corn flakes, pasta sauce, chili beans, three-bean salad in the can and canned ham.

"It's pretty fun. You get to meet people around the neighborhood and help the community," Curtis Jones said. Adam Jones added, "It feels good."

Because of the deep recession — and the 42 percent increase in families served by the Food Bank compared to May a year ago — the donations are much needed, Hutson said. The food is carted away, not just by poor or needy people but by the "working poor or recently unemployed, some of whom come here by bus and some in their Mercedes."

"Most just lost their job," Hutson said. "The pay stopped. All they need to obtain a box of food here, once a month, is proof that they live in Ashland or Talent. Even if they're just passing through, they get four items. We want them to know we're here."

The Food Bank has relied on donations from church congregations, individuals and bags distributed by the Postal Service, the latter bringing in about 18 tons a year. Javna predicts AFP, by the end of the year, will be bringing in five tons each time.

The AFP's goals (www.ashlandfoodproject.com) go way beyond food and into building a neighborhood-based sense of community and modeling a system of social sustainability that can be used by other cities, Javna said.

"It's creating a neighborhood consciousness. You get to know each other. It should have no stigma about giving food to the needy," he said. "It comes from neighbors wanting each other to eat well, not just a one-time impulsive act of largesse — and it doesn't ask too much of anyone."

Volunteer neighborhood organizer Louis Plummer says the slogan "It takes a village" has just been a bunch of words "but now, I've got I've got it, that you're taking care of everyone. It's incredible, like getting a Christmas present for someone and you got the right thing and you know they're going to love it."

Sally and Steve Russo, AFP coordinators for their neighborhood on upper Morton, said almost everyone they canvassed was receptive to giving food and many thanked them for doing it. Those who weren't going to be home on pickup day either e-mailed that they placed the food out front or brought it to the Russo's house, they say.

Jordan Pease, director of the Rogue Valley Metaphysical Library in Ashland, said he helped organize AFP because "I was attracted to the community building. It's going to bring people together and give us an experience of altruism that's not ordinarily accessible to us.

"It inspires people to volunteer and give more," Pease said. "Community is important not because we face a challenging future and these efforts give people the opportunity to be part of the solution."

The AFP needed cloth market bags to leave with donors and, says Javna, a prominent Ashland business owner stepped up and donated the money for the first 2,000 bags.

"In Ashland you can do amazing thins because people want to support good causes," Javna said "There's a hunger for a stronger sense of neighborhood, but people haven't known how to realize it. Everything in our culture works against it — shopping, commuting, television. We're all behind our screens and something is missing. This may give people a way to explore and fulfill that longing."