The line of people is out the door of the warehouse, down the block, around the corner, and halfway up a side street. Holding empty shopping bags and pulling wheeled grocery baskets, they talk with their neighbors in line about their lives, their dogs and cats waiting at home, or the unseasonably cool summer weather. For most, it will be a one to two hour wait in line. But there is little complaining; they know that in the end, they will walk out with enough premium all-natural food to keep their dog or cat well fed for the next two weeks, or more.
For almost a year, The Pongo Fund Pet Food Bank has been providing free pet food (and treats) for families in financial crisis. Every second and fourth Sunday, founder and director, Larry Chusid, rolls up the gray metal door at 910 NE Martin Luther King Boulevard, a space donated by the Portland Development Commission, and with the help of a dedicated staff of volunteers, provides healthy dog and cat food to people from every corner of the region, including Southwest Washington, and every economic background.
What started out as an earnest effort to feed the dogs and cats of the homeless has turned into Oregon’s only charitable pet food organization and the largest and possibly only one in the nation to provide premium quality food like Canidae, Felidae, and Dogswell. The Pongo Fund consumes Chusid’s life and his finances but he is whole-heartedly committed to the effort. “We’re not a casual organization,” he says. “I’ve dedicated my life to this.”
Potluck in the Park Beginnings
Peggy Reuler remembers the first time Chusid attended a Potluck in the Park event. It was around Christmas 2007 and Chusid showed up with bags of pet food. Every Sunday in downtown Portland’s O’Bryant Square, Potluck in the Park provides free hot meals to anyone in need and Chusid knew that there would be plenty of hungry dogs there, as well. “He just started offering pet food to our guests,” recalls Reuler, a former board chair who has volunteered with Potluck in the Park for nineteen years.
She says people really appreciated him. Having a healthy meal for their dogs (or in some cases, cats) meant they didn’t have to skim from their own plate in order to feed their four-legged companions. “Those with pets consider them part of the family,” she says. “We really see what a difference it makes [having pet food available] to our guests.”
When Chusid opened the doors of The Pongo Fund, Potluck in the Park continued to offer the premium pet food. Volunteers pick up large bags of dog and cat food from the warehouse and distribute it to their Sunday guests in smaller, more manageable zip lock bags. As of May 2010, Potluck in the Park had provided more than 10,000 pounds of pet food—all of it donations from The Pongo Fund.
In appreciation, Potluck in the Park Board of Directors approved a generous financial contribution to The Pongo Fund last month, confirming them as a true community partner. “We want to support that effort,” says Reuler.
We're All in This Together
Initially, Chusid and a few friends funded the startup of this non-profit organization with their own capital, but as The Pongo Fund nears its one-year anniversary he credits their hundreds of donors, including the Hedinger Family Foundation and the Bland Family Foundation, with the generous contributions that have helped them reach more people and their pets than he ever imagined possible in the first year. He also heaps accolades on the pet food companies who help him feed as many hungry animals as possible.
Canidae’s Director of Operations, Frank Hon, says the company’s headquarters gets a number of requests for donations every day. Although there are many worthy causes, he says Canidae is focused on supporting organizations they truly believe in.
It’s clear that The Pongo Fund is close to their heart. In the past year, Canidae, which also manufactures Felidae for cats, donated nearly $250,000 of wet and dry food to The Pongo Fund. “We support Larry because of what he’s doing in the community,” says Hon.
A seasoned, highly energetic and focused entrepreneur, Chusid sees himself having a minor role in the greater picture of providing social services. He gives more credit to the PDC for donating the space on MLK—a $4500 a month value—the Department of Human Services for referring people in need, the food banks, distribution trucks that donate their time, and his volunteers. “Our mission is the same, to fight hunger. And we’re all in this together,” says Chusid.
Chusid admits that he used to cry nearly every day after hearing peoples’ stories of struggle and suffering. Now, instead of letting those stories weigh him down with grief, he looks for opportunities to turn things around.
“How can I affect a family that is so financially challenged, that is hurting so badly that they can’t afford to feed their pets?” he says. “They’re calling someone that they don’t know asking for help. Everyone in that situation is fragile, the family, the pets and even us, and I just want to figure out what we can do to make things better.”
Paul, Lazer and Koko
Paul Hoffine has a pair of shoes that could use new soles but he hasn’t had a spare cent to put toward that expense. In fact, he barely has enough to keep food on his shelves and sometimes he doesn’t have enough to buy dog food for his two labs, Koko and Lazer. His friend told him that when push comes to shove, rice fills an empty belly. At times, he’s had to resort to feeding his dogs that and bread rather than nothing at all. Hoffine says that’s why Koko is overweight. “I think it’s the bread, you know, putting the weight around his belly.”
In 1971, Hoffine suffered a brain injury in a car crash on a rural Portland road. After a long recovery and rehabilitation period, Hoffine, then 24, was able to work again, but he now relies on disability to pay his bills. He’s on several medications, some of which impair his short-term memory.
Hoffine had never heard of The Pongo Fund until he received a call from Chusid. Hoffine’s caseworker at the Department of Human Services had contacted the organization to see if he was eligible to receive food for Koko and Lazer. Chusid didn’t hesitate and within a few hours the dogs were dining on nutritious bowls of kibble.
Now, Hoffine doesn’t have to worry about where dog food money will come from. As long as he’s in need, The Pongo Fund will provide him with dog food. Hoffine says it relieves some financial anxiety but mainly, he’s glad that Koko and Lazer can count on two healthy meals a day.
Hoffine is one of countless numbers of people who are having a hard time finding the money to buy food for their animal companions—let alone the more expensive, premium quality brands. For many, just pouring something in the bowl is better than nothing or even worse, having to surrender their companion animal to a shelter. Chusid understands this heartbreaking dilemma but he’s of the mindset that all people and their animals deserve to eat healthy food, whether they’re living on the street or paycheck-to-paycheck.
Reaching Out to Charitable Food Organizations
That’s why Chusid’s been pushing The Pongo Fund services into a growing number of food donation agencies. Although he’s now serving nearly 160 families every other Sunday out of his warehouse, he knows the need for dog and cat food is far greater than what he and his volunteer crew can handle at the warehouse.
The Oregon Food Bank (OFB) accepts the occasional donation of dog and cat food, but doesn’t openly solicit. It’s not that OFB doesn’t see the need, but their mission—to feed people—consumes all their financial, staff, and volunteer resources.
Two years ago, Chusid approached Shawn DeCarlo, Metro Services Manager for OFB, pointing out that people who don’t have access to pet food will feed their animals their own food and in the end, everyone in the house is underfed. Chusid had witnessed that in the homeless population where he delivered dog food.
Maybe it was concern about getting the pet food distributed to hundreds of hunger relief agencies, or that it would arrive in torn bags, or perhaps, that it would take away from providing people with food. Regardless, it took some effort to convince OFB that The Pongo Fund could add something of real value.
Chusid had encountered several organizations that said they didn’t have a need for pet food because no one asked for it. His response was “no one asks for it because they know you don’t have it.”
“What I’ve learned is that people don’t want to draw attention to themselves. They don’t want to show up at a food pantry and ask for pet food. I appeal to these organizations by referencing Field of Dreams; if you build it, they will come.”
Eventually, DeCarlo agreed that offering premium pet food would benefit their customers and soon after, OFB was accepting The Pongo Fund’s first 14,000-pound donation for redistribution to their Regional Food Bank Network. DeCarlo says that within a few hours the pet food was gone from the distribution dock on 33rd Avenue. In other words, it was a hot commodity among local and regional agencies statewide.
But that’s not enough to make OFB jump into the pet food distribution business. “We look at The Pongo Fund as a donor of high quality pet food,” says DeCarlo. “They are not a partner agency right now because we don’t have something to offer [in return]. But what he [Chusid] is doing is providing a valuable service and I think it compliments our work.”
Neighborhood House, on Southwest Capital Highway, is one of OFB’s partnering agencies and works directly with The Pongo Fund to receive pet food donations, which they include in the food box deliveries to people—particularly seniors—with pets, when it’s available. Kelly Owen, Food Coordinator at Neighborhood House, says that people are delighted to learn that pet food is available.
She’s also glad that her organization can provide it. As a former caseworker, Owen says she always carried dog and cat food in her car trunk during her rounds. Since joining Neighborhood House in November 2009, she says she hears more stories from families who have never had to ask for assistance. Now, they have to get help just to feed their families. Their worry is compounded when there are hungry animals in the equation.
But Owen says most people will do anything in their power to keep their pets with them. She recalls a woman who was on a fixed income and had a service dog that was severely injured. After receiving veterinarian care, she was handed a bill that was more than her monthly rent and utilities. Luckily, she was able to get some assistance that month through Neighborhood House, which included a supply of premium dog food from The Pongo Fund in her food box. “The dog really loved the food and it aided in a fast recovery,” says Owen.
Next Year and Beyond
“We’re hitting our one year mark in excellent shape,” says Chusid, noting that The Pongo Fund ended its first fiscal year with more than $400,000 in donations of cash, food, supplies, legal fees, web design, and warehouse space. As an all-volunteer charity without any paid staff, every cent donated goes directly into replenishing their pet food supply and distributing it statewide. In addition, The Pongo Fund donates the premium food to charitable food organizations that offer it to their own clients. Since opening day last November, The Pongo Fund has provided more than 500,000 quality meals to thousands of families in 23 different counties, allowing thousands of family pets to stay healthy, well fed and out of the shelters.
Perhaps, Chusid only sees the sky as the limit to the work he can do. “As long as families are giving up their own food to feed pets let’s make sure there is food available specifically for the pets. No family member should starve be they two-legged or four. I just don’t think it needs to be complicated. It’s that simple.”