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Food Project to go NATIONAL

Easing hunger through efforts invented in Jackson County needs community support to spread nationwide.

The Neighborhood Food Project has launched a $100,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund its “tool kit” that paves the way for anyone, anywhere in the country, to start a “green bag program.”

The all-volunteer group, born and based in Jackson County, so far has raised and invested $120,000 in the project and is applying for another $110,000 in grants, says John Javna, executive director, board chairman and co-founder.

“Over 10 years, we’ve learned an awful lot about how to do this,” says Javna. “We know that it works anywhere.”

Incubated in Ashland, the Neighborhood Food Project quickly spread to seven more local communities, followed by 10 more in Oregon, making it the state’s largest charitable group organized and staffed entirely by volunteers — approximately 13,000, said Javna. The concept has spread to Washington, California and six other states for a total of 41 Food Projects across the country. Founding a Food Project in hundreds, if not thousands, of American cities is the goal, says Javna.

“This is our effort to change the world,” he says.

Dramatically changing the way food is donated locally, the Food Project amasses 70,000 pounds of nonperishable goods every two months in Jackson County. More than 7,000 volunteers collect groceries, stowed in green tote bags, from participating households and transfer them to individual communities’ emergency food pantries. Billed as a way for neighbors to help neighbors, the Food Project fosters collaboration and heightens civic awareness, serving as a model for grassroots organizing, Javna says.

“There was nothing like this,” he says. “It seemed like such an obvious idea.”

Although straightforward in concept and low-cost to administer, the Food Project has benefited from software that’s in development with a San Francisco area company and managed by a volunteer based in Grants Pass, Javna says. A grant from a large organization and another major donation paid for the software, he says.

Technical support for new and existing Food Projects is the next phase, he says. The Kickstarter campaign will fund a tool kit of digital and printed materials to ensure the model’s success wherever it’s implemented. The online campaign is set to run from May 20 to June 13.

The toolkit, available free by request, will include about 40 how-to and recruiting videos, plus 30 short testimonial videos for use as public service announcements and on social media. A customizable app for food donors to use while shopping will provide a current list of most-needed items, plus reports on grocers’ specials for those items. A customizable website template, online forum, digital graphics and a media kit with sample press releases, newsletters and social media pages also are planned.

Handbooks will be available to document all aspects of the project, from sourcing supplies to working with food banks to recruiting neighborhood coordinators. Printed materials consist of brochures, cards, door hangers, forms and reports.

The project also intends to support programs that retain volunteers and build community through outreach efforts to specific groups, such as students and homebound people, as well as a pilot that supplies enough reusable grocery bags and printed materials for any community to test-run a Food Project and demonstrate to potential supporters how it works.

“We don’t control them; we just help them,” Javna says. “We’ve always been about community and food and not about bureaucracy.”

Presenting a “new paradigm” for helping stock food banks, the Food Project bolsters the work of ACCESS, the county’s emergency food bank and one of the region’s largest nonprofits. Community pantries that are supported by ACCESS but aren’t set up to receive commodity food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture benefit greatly from the Food Project, says Rachael Ward, ACCESS nutrition director.

“For a lot of smaller pantries, it’s their main supply of food,” says Ward, who is on the steering committee for the Medford Food Project.

Ward says she had never seen anything like the Food Project in eight years of nonprofit work before coming from Atlanta to ACCESS last year. It’s a model for leveraging local resources, she says, that can be applied to fixing any number of social problems.

“It’s a great model for community building in general,” she says.

To donate to the Kickstarter campaign, see www.kickstartfoodproject.com. As of Wednesday afternoon, $5,019 had been raised from 54 people, with 22 days to go.

For more information about the Food Project, see www.neighborhoodfoodproject.org.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

John Javna trains South Medford High School students to recruit new Medford Food Project donors. [Photo by Denise Baratta]
Karen Jones prepares a green bag at the Phoenix Food Project located in the Presbyterian Church in Phoenix. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]