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Health on wheels

ACCESS mobile food pantry programs are returning after hiatus
Omar Delgado and volunteers organize produce from the Access mobile pantry at La Clinica in Medford. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

For those driving past it on South Pacific Highway, ACCESS’ mobile food pantry looks a lot like a delivery truck, but for the dozens of Rogue Valley families it serves at each stop, it’s a lifeline.

On a Friday afternoon, Omar Delgado and a small team of volunteers braked for about 20 families to pick up nutritious staples at a Healthy Mobile Pantry stop in front of La Clinica in Phoenix.

Delgado, ACCESS’ Mobile Pantry coordinator, said he loves helping people, as he carefully arranged packages of fresh broccoli and pallets of blueberries on a folding table near the truck.

“People let us know this is helping them,” Delgado said, describing “sweet” comments from regulars such as, “You guys make my Friday a better Friday.”

Mobile food pantries are geared toward people with special dietary needs, such as diabetics or folks with high blood pressure. In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, people can pick up such healthful shelf-stable items as almond milk, sugar alternatives and whole-grain bread.

The mobile pantries — conducted in partnership with nonprofits La Clinica and Rogue Community Health — are among the newest ACCESS food programs, according to Marcee Champion, ACCESS food programs director. But even the traditional mobile food pantry programs are just coming back online now that coronavirus restrictions are lifting.

“Mobile food pantry is back in full force,” Champion said.

During the pandemic, mobile pantry services went offline, and many ACCESS pantry programs went to drive-thru only as they worked to limit contact while feeding people in need.

In March, Champion said the program was “kind of a mix” between in-person shopping-style food pantries and limited-contact drive-thru services involving preassembled food boxes.

Champion said gradually returning to the structure they used prior to the pandemic is “ultimately our goal because it allows for greater choice.”

In 2021, ACCESS helped 44,029 Jackson County residents with food assistance, which is roughly 1 in 5 locals, according to numbers provided by the nonprofit. Among those residents helped, 21% were children and 20% were seniors.

ACCESS formed in 1976 with the goal of meeting unmet needs of low-income senior citizens, according to the nonprofit’s web-site. Its acronym initially stood for “Aging Community Coordinated Enterprises & Supportive Services, Inc.”

Local food pantries began in the early 1980s with cheese giveaways, and the nonprofit got a $23,000 grant from the Ben Cheney Foundation to set up a warehouse and distribution program.

By 1982, ACCESS was designated the regional coordinating agency for distributing food from Oregon Food Share, and by 1985 the federal government had designated ACCESS a Community Action Agency to help combat poverty in Jackson County.

The nonprofit has developed nutrition programs designed to help supplement seniors’ pantries with boxes of shelf-stable items such as lower-sodium and high-fiber foods.

The largest ACCESS food pantry is in west Medford, which serves between 90 and 100 families, or about 250 people each week, Champion said.

All of the nonprofit’s food pantry services run on help from volunteers, according to Champion, and there are all sorts of ways to help — be it through volunteer community gardens, or its fresh alliance program picking up food from local grocery stores that grocers can’t sell, but is still safe to eat.

Starting next fall, ACCESS will take over a backpack program meant to feed food-insecure kids on weekends, and they’ll be able to utilize all the help they can get.

“If somebody wants to volunteer, we will find a place for them,” Champion said.

ACCESS had help from 753 volunteers last year, the bulk of whom helped in food pantry programs, according to Champion.

“People who volunteer, they have a heart for people in the community,” Champion said.

Among those longtime ACCESS volunteers is Edith Abercrombie of Central Point, who helped at the healthy mobile food pantry. She highlighted the no-sugar-added diced peaches in single-serve packages as a favorite of regulars.

“People love these, even my kids,” said Abercrombie, who used to volunteer at the Central Point food bank, but has grown to enjoy helping at the mobile food pantries.

“I like this concept. You’re out in the open, you get to meet the people,” she said. “Besides, it gets me out of the house.”

Champion said they prefer volunteers who can serve on a consistent schedule such as once a week or once a month at a certain time of the day, but backups are always welcome.

In determining eligibility, the nonprofit uses The Emergency Food Assistance Program or TEFAP guide-lines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For 2022, TEFAP guidelines show single-person house-holds with an annual income of $40,770 or less as eligible for food assistance, while two-person households with a yearly income of up to $54,930, three-person households making $69,090 or less, and four-person households earning $83,250 or less are eligible.

“More people are probably eligible for food assistance than probably know it,” Champion said.

Click here to read the 2022 edition of Our Valley.