A free food pantry in west Medford was immune to last week’s Black Friday gimmicks, but Kelly Espinosa would assure you that she’s got a holiday rush to handle even so.
“Holidays are really, really crazy here,” said Espinosa, who co-manages the food pantry, one of the busiest in the network supplied by local nonprofit ACCESS.
She and a cadre of other volunteers were readying the building off North Columbus Avenue for that rush Tuesday afternoon, straightening rows of peanut butter jars and readying meats in the freezer.
There’s rarely enough canned vegetables to meet demand, Espinosa said. Flour, oils and other baking ingredients are also often in short supply.
“We run out pretty quick,” she said.
Shortages of canned and other foods at ACCESS pantries are one reason behind the nonprofit’s annual Food for Hope food and fund drive, which kicks off Wednesday, Dec. 4. Donations from the Food for Hope drive are the main way that ACCESS plans for not only the heavy-traffic holiday season, but well beyond.
Rachael Ward, ACCESS nutrition services director, said the drive is a critical time to gather certain foods that are more difficult for the network to get a hold of throughout the year.
Ward said items such as canned vegetables and fruits, grains and flours, which she described as “shelf-stable,” are harder to get through ACCESS’s other networks, such as the Oregon Food Bank.
The Oregon Food Bank supplies local food banks with fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and milk, which it receives through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China has proved to be a boon to U.S. food pantries, as the USDA has bought more food from farmers struggling to sell their crops overseas. But food pantries still have unmet needs.
Nonperishable items that can remain unrefrigerated, for instance, often have to come from other sources. Variety is important to accommodate people with certain dietary restrictions or allergies, Ward said.
“That’s where it goes into stretching beyond the month of December into January or February,” Ward said about donations collected in the Food for Hope drive.
Donors have two ways to contribute: They can make a tax-deductible donation online at https://bit.ly/2qlXF9W, or by mail to ACCESS, PO Box 4666, Medford, OR 97501.
They can also fill a box, a reusable bag or a brown bag with nonperishable groceries and drop it off at any one of ACCESS’s approved sites, including the Mail Tribune, 111 N. Fir St.; any Jackson County fire station; ACCESS, 3630 Aviation Way, Medford; Sherm’s Thunderbird, 2347 W. Main St.; all Umpqua Bank locations in Jackson County; and several Medford churches. A full list can be found at www.accesshelps.org/foodforhope/.
In addition to canned vegetables, canned meats such as tuna and chicken are needed, as are hygiene products, including shampoo, conditioner, deodorant and toothbrushes.
Bags provided by ACCESS are distributed in all of Rosebud Media’s publications Wednesday: the Mail Tribune, the Ashland Tidings and the Nickel. Any bag or box will be accepted, though they must be dropped off by Dec. 31.
ACCESS has set a goal of receiving 10,000 pounds of food in this year’s drive, which is in its 36th year.
Last year, donations came in around 10,000 pounds, though the organization had set a goal of 20,000 pounds, Ward said.
“Last year what we took in did not last as long,” she said.
She said that ACCESS distributed about 96,000 pounds of food through its pantries every week in 2019. That’s almost 5 million pounds this year.
It also has a goal this year of raising $30,000. Both kinds of donations are valued, Ward said, because the food banks can’t supply all the foods that the pantries’ patrons need. ACCESS has said it can purchase four meals with every dollar donated.
As long as the pantries have food and Jackson County has hungry people, the volunteers will be there to help distribute donations.
Espinosa said Tuesdays are a full day of service at the west Medford food pantry, 750 N. Columbus Ave.: from 9 a.m., when she begins preparing, to 6 p.m., when the last person has made their way through and the place is cleaned up and reorganized.
“I really, seriously like helping people,” she said. “It makes me feel good at the end of the day.”
Susan Burke, who’s been coming to the west Medford pantry for at least two years, said she loves not only the opportunity to bring food home, but also to see the volunteers she knows well by now. The food she gets feeds not only herself and her husband, but also her grandchildren when they come over.
“The bottom line is, you’re feeding families, you’re feeding children,” she said. “That’s where I see the real blessing in this.”