Portlanders are a generous people, constantly seeking opportunities to volunteer, help others, and improve their community. Consider the role that Friends of Trees has in keeping Portland green, or the fact that Hands on Greater Portland provides daily volunteer opportunities with 300-plus partner organizations throughout the Portland metro area. According to a recent story in the Portland Tribune, Portland ranks right behind Minneapolis in annual volunteer hours.
This volunteer ethic in Portland allows nonprofit organizations to thrive, especially those addressing the gaps in the local area’s food system. Whether it’s packing food boxes or serving hot meals, Portlanders step up and donate time to ensure that others are able to eat. In fiscal year 2010-2011, the Oregon Food Bank relied on 117,000 volunteer hours—the equivalent of about 56 full-time employees. At Sisters of the Road in Old Town, volunteers can engage in “systemic change” to address root causes of hunger.
Out in East County, SnowCap, the largest food pantry in Oregon (as measured by the number of people served as opposed to operating budget), relies on 1,000 volunteers annually to help provide food for hungry residents in a service area that stretches from East 82nd Avenue to the Clackamas County line. SnowCap’s director Judy Alley says, “Without our volunteers, we simply would not be able to do what we do.”
While packing food boxes and volunteering at pantries are great ways to help feed hungry Portlanders, there may be situations in which even the most well-meaning of us might not know how to help. There is a changing face of hunger, with former middle-class families finding themselves in unfamiliar situations and not knowing how to ask for the help they need. These newly hungry could be people you know: a co-worker, a neighbor, a classmate.
If you learn that those close to you may be suffering from hunger, would you be able to intervene and take the steps necessary for them to get the help they need?
Know the Options for Food Shortage Emergencies
I make an effort to avoid writing about personal experiences, but a recent interaction transpired that is relevant to this subject. I was in the parking lot of a grocery store when I was approached by a woman seeking help to find food for herself and her kids. “I’m new to the area,” she said, “and looking for food.” Quickly my mind raced through all of the various food pantries and emergency food options—but it was 9 o’clock at night. Frustratingly, everything I considered sharing with the woman would not have been available at that time.
“At that point, I’d pretty much just offer five bucks,” says Robyn Johnson, a community advocacy coordinator with Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon. “There’s not really any food pantries open at night. There used to be one downtown, but it closed. And they would’ve had to have caught the bus to bring the food box back as well.”
Alley does offer one option that is available day or night for those seeking immediate help with food: police stations. “The Sunshine Division does a real good job of keeping police stations stocked with emergency food boxes,” she says.
Of course, as Johnson points out, “Going into a police station seeking food may simply not be an option for some of these people.”
“The trick,” Alley says, “is to ensure that late-night encounter never occurs. We need to raise the awareness of people about the options available to them. And we need to get people to see what their neighbors are going through as well.”
There is also a simple number that people can call to find help with food assistance and other similar emergencies. Just as you would dial 911 when facing a public safety emergency, dialing 211 is an option Portlanders have when facing a food shortage. According to Johnson, “211 does an excellent job asking ‘the next question.’ If people are calling in trying to find information about SNAP, they might also need help paying rent or heat or other utilities.”
Locate an Emergency Food Pantry
Suppose you know someone who is hungry and would like to get them to the nearest emergency food pantry. The only problem is, you have absolutely no idea where the nearest food pantry is. The Oregon Food Bank is your one-stop source for information. Using its Food Finder tool, you can find food boxes, meals, and, similar to 211, referrals to other assistance services that accompany hunger.
Food pantries provide one emergency food box a month per family. That may not seem like very much, but there are different food pantries open at different times nearly every day throughout the metro region. Proof of residency or financial hardship is needed to pick up a box—usually the same information that is required to qualify for SNAP benefits.
Food boxes typically have enough food to last three to five days, but it’s “usually along the three-days side of the spectrum,” Alley says. Some families that suffer from hunger issues might also have pets that need food as well. The Pongo Fund, Portland’s pet food bank, was opened nearly two and a half years ago to address these issues.
People aren't aware that pets are often given food from emergency boxes, says Larry Chusid, the Pongo Fund’s executive director. “As a result, the food from food boxes runs out quicker and families and children continue to go hungry.”
The Pongo Fund and SnowCap have partnered to offer high-quality pet food in the emergency food boxes that SnowCap provides to families with pets. “Human food is simply not good for animals,” Alley says. “It’s expensive, it lacks the nutrition needed for animals, and it denies food for the person in need.”
By providing pet food in emergency food boxes, both the furry, four-legged friends as well as their owners receive the food they need. “To me, the issue of whether we should feed people versus pets is divisive,” Chusid says. “It’s more important that hungry people and hungry animals both get the food they need.”
Create a Food Drive and Collect Food
On the Oregon Food Bank web page, there are suggestions for how individuals or organizations can hold a food drive and collect food. Caitlin Morrison, a sophomore at Franklin High School, used similar tactics to start a BackPack Program at Oliver and Parklane Elementary schools in the Centennial School District. Located on the boundary between Gresham and Portland, Morrison wanted to address the alarming food access issues in East Portland. “Originally I was going to start a program in Mt. Tabor,” Morrison says, “but the need for food was bigger at Oliver and Parklane.”
Although Morrison is barely old enough to legally drive a car, she has recruited churches and organizations to adopt a weekend each month and collect enough food to distribute to 40 kids. These efforts allow kids to eat over the weekend, as opposed to not having eaten since lunchtime the previous Friday. (Full disclosure: I help Morrison with the weekly distribution of food sacks.)
“I’d like to see more groups signed up [to donate food],” Morrison says. “I definitely want to get this program self-sufficient by the time I finish high school.”
Morrison was inspired to pursue the BackPack Program by a story in The Oregonian about a similar project in Beaverton. Just as she was energized by the efforts of others, she wanted to set an example, which would hopefully encourage similar projects that address hunger in other communities across Portland.
Morrison advises that if you want to start such a project, simply: “Talk to other people and build connections. It’s by talking to people that you make anything happen.”
Connect Surplus Edible Food With Organizations That Feed the Hungry
There is also a substantive need for volunteers to help connect surplus edible food from food generating businesses, like restaurants and bakeries, with the organizations that help feed Portland’s hungriest residents. Renee Curtis, a researcher at Portland State University, recently conducted an assessment of the food donation infrastructure in the Portland region. (Full disclosure: She is my wife and I assisted with the study.)
According to Curtis, "A major gap exists in the coordination between potential food donating businesses and food rescue agencies. Reliable volunteers provide an invaluable service by offering support to the agencies and the donation process. In addition to the donation of food or funds, people who want to address the hunger problem can contact local agencies to assist with coordination and collection of surplus food donations from local businesses."
Approach the Delicate Subject of Hunger Issues With Your Friends and Neighbors
“Don’t just tell them about a food pantry—take them!” suggests Alley. “It’s only by becoming aware of the options available do we prevent those 9 o’clock parking lot encounters.”
Johnson also offers some recommendations on how to broach the subject when talking with friends you suspect are in need. “I’d suggest you say that you knew someone who was in a situation—or even you yourself—and how they really benefited from going to this organization or calling 211. That might get them to seek help.”
Being aware of the range of options that address hunger around you, and knowing that the hungry may not know how to ask for assistance, can help you intervene with a solution for your friends, family or community at large.
Correction 4/30/2012: The article initially stated that in 2011, the Oregon Food Bank relied on 93,000 volunteer hours—the equivalent of 45 full-time employees.