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Oregon Food Banks Challenged By Rising Demand, Potential Labor Shortages

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April Ehrlich | JPR News
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Volunteers and workers pack food bags to distribute meals around Ashland for the nonprofit Peace House.

Finding food has become especially challenging for low-income and unhoused people recently, as food banks and other assistance programs change the ways they operate to accommodate social distancing guidelines.

“We get mixed messages about when they serve food, and sometimes we miss out,” says Andrew Hecker, who is currently unsheltered.

Hecker spends his nights camping by the Bear Creek Greenway in Ashland, which has become an unofficial campground for people with nowhere else to stay during the coronavirus pandemic. Local nonprofits have begun bringing their services to the creek, including Peace House, which ordinarily organizes a weekly community meal in Ashland.

Now, instead of cooking a community meal, Peace House volunteers pack food boxes to deliver at sites around town four times a week. Executive director Elizabeth Hallet says they’ve seen an increased demand for food assistance recently, as more people are laid off or furloughed from their jobs.

Oregon Food Bank CEO Susannah Morgan says that’s a trend she’s seeing statewide. Many regional banks are reporting client increases of 30, 40, 50 percent — one distributor had an increase of 100 percent. And Oregon isn’t yet at its anticipated peak of demand.

“We're expecting to see a wave of new folks needing food assistance for a complex variety of reasons,” Morgan says. “And that wave will be in the hundreds of thousands of people.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced Monday that the state will allocate an additional $8 million to the Oregon Food Bank, to be paid in weekly installments over the next eight weeks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse 75 percent of those funds to the state.

The additional funding will help the Oregon Food Bank purchase food that it ordinarily would have received as a donation. Food banks usually get donations from grocery stores, farms, and other food producers that have an inventory surplus, but there isn’t much of a food surplus right now due to a wave of panic-buyers and people stocking up on groceries to last them several weeks.

But the extra funding doesn’t help with the biggest stressor food banks are facing: a shortage of volunteers.

“The entire food assistance system runs on volunteers,” Morgan says. “We have hundreds of staff throughout this network and tens of thousands of volunteers.”

Many people who volunteer at food banks are retired and elderly — the very demographic that’s considered to have a high risk of developing serious symptoms from the coronavirus.

“We’re being impacted on all fronts right now,” says Chris Bosse, who supervises the regional food bank at ACCESS in Medford.

The National Guard has been deployed in Washington and California to help food banks with tasks that volunteers would normally do: packing food boxes and distributing supplies to regional food banks. In Oregon, the Guard has yet to be deployed.

Morgan says the Guard is its “plan B,” and that Oregon’s food bank network currently has enough food and volunteers to meet its immediate needs. A spokesman with the Oregon Military Department says the Guard is able to help food banks when they need it.

In the meantime, food assistance programs continue to work with what they’ve got and they’re rearranging how they distribute food. Like that community meal in Ashland that has transitioned to delivering food boxes at sites around town, including the Bear Creek Greenway, where Andrew Hecker is camping until he can find a place to stay.

Hecker says he often gets food assistance from nonprofits like Peace House, and that he’s concerned about what will happen if the coronavirus further impacts food assistance programs.

“Once it spreads [and gets] even worse, people are going to be locked inside and no one is going to be out here and serve us,” Hecker says. “So we are going to have to do something to find food.”

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.