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Ashland Food Network taps a hunger to help

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 drop-off day.

"They've filled our (intake) shelf six times already," said food bank 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 kids 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 Ashland Food Project has pioneered a system that is not an occasional "food drive for the needy," emphasizes John Javna, one of its leaders, but rather an ongoing method 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 in Ashland.

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 $1 of their $5 weekly allowance to buy food for the project. Two dollars go to savings and the rest 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 a ton of food a month — and the project is aiming for at least 900 donors.

Joanie Keller-Hand, who donated to the twins' 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 nonperishables 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 said.

His brother 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."

The only thing residents need to bring to obtain a box of food at the food bank every month is proof they live in Ashland or Talent, she said.

"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 the Ashland Food Project, by the end of the year, will be bringing in 5 tons each time.

The project's goals (www.ashlandfoodproject.com) go 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," he said. "You get to know each other. It should have no stigma about giving food to the needy.

"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."

Sally and Steve Russo, food project coordinators for their neighborhood on upper Morton Street, said almost everyone they canvassed was receptive to giving food and many thanked them for the project. 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 Russos' house, they said.

Jordan Pease, director of the Rogue Valley Metaphysical Library in Ashland, said he helped organize the food project 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 project needed cloth market bags to leave with donors. A prominent Ashland business owner stepped up and donated the money for the first 2,000 bags, Javna said.

"In Ashland you can do amazing things 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."

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

Ashland Food Network taps a hunger to help