A passion to feed north Clark County's needy

Stepping down as director of food bank in Battle Ground, Elaine Hertz hopes community will ‘step up’

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

If you go:

What: Retirement celebration for Elaine Hertz, the longtime director of the North County Community Food Bank.

When: 4:30 to 6 p.m. Friday.

Where: Battle Ground Community Center, 912 E. Main St.

Cost: Free.

North County Community Food Bank:

HELP WANTED: Volunteers drive most everything the food bank does, organizers say.

DONATIONS: They’re always welcome. The food bank accepts some government and foundation grants, but most of its food items are donated by private people.

CONTACT: Call the food bank at 360-687-5007.

BATTLE GROUND — A grand tour of the North County Community Food Bank takes about 15 steps — a diminutive walk-in freezer and a U-shaped bend of hand-labeled warehouse shelves.

There’s not a whole lot on those shelves right now, Elaine Hertz points out. “The cupboard is bare,” said Hertz, who’s been the driving force behind north Clark County’s central food pantry for going on 20 years.

Summer is always a lean time for donations, she said, while the end-of-year stretch from Thanksgiving to Christmas is when giving hits a peak. Then, the food bank’s small storage space isn’t nearly enough.

Nonetheless, Hertz said, the last few years of recession and layoffs have seen demand for the food bank soar. “The need is much greater than the supply,” she said.

This week, Hertz is stepping down as the food bank’s executive director as she and her husband both face health challenges. A community retirement party is set for 4:30 p.m. Friday at the Battle Ground Community Center, 912 E. Main St. There will be a slide show, tributes to Hertz and light refreshments. All are welcome.

As she sat down for an exit interview in the tight, busy food bank office at 17 E. Third Ave., Hertz said she wanted to thank — and challenge — the city where she’s lived nearly all her life.

“I just want to thank the community for being behind this program. I want to thank the volunteers,” she said. “This is the community’s food bank. It’s not mine. I hope the community will step up and get strong, because we are needy now.”

She remembers when the food bank fed 50 families per month, she said. Today it’s up to 450 families per month.

Grew up poor

At first, Hertz said, she was “strong-armed” into what became a 20-plus-year career nurturing social services in Battle Ground. She was coaxed onto an advisory council for North County Social Services, then a poor cousin among Clark County programs, in the late 1980s. What she thought was a temporary stint became permanent when she was elected president of the board in 1990; a few years later, with the county cutting back on hands-on social services, Hertz fought hard to save the core piece of that agency — the food bank — and wound up as its first paid director.

Why Hertz — a humble housewife with no career experience?

“Good question. It shocked the heck out of me,” she said. But she thought it over some more and added: “I grew up poor myself. My folks received government commodities once a month — a box with powdered eggs and cheese and milk and such.”

Her parents took whatever odd jobs they could while also working their own Venersborg farm. “We did what we could for ourselves. It wasn’t easy,” she said.

“I know what it’s like, and I guess I have compassion for people that shows through. Trying to help seniors and kids — that really matters to me.”

The food bank leased space for years and eventually bought its own building — a storied little spot at 17 E. Third Ave. that’s housed everything from the city fire department to the police evidence room — and just retired the mortgage last year. The building is all of 1,800 square feet in size.

The North County Community Food Bank has been an independent nonprofit agency since 1997. It accepts some small government grants and commodity distributions, Hertz said. But most of what passes through here is private donations from private people.

Hertz said she knows an older lady who subsists on Social Security and not much else — and who manages to unfailingly gift the food bank $20 every month.

“That kind of thing adds up, no matter how small you think it is,” she said.

Stepping back

Running a donation-driven nonprofit during an economic downturn is hard enough; Hertz also has more than her fair share of personal matters to keep after now.

“My husband has major health issues,” she said.

Ron has leukemia and in recent months has also developed infections that have required brain surgery. He has spent months in the hospital, although he’s home now. Meanwhile, Hertz said, her hearing in one ear is failing and it’s making her dizzy.

“It’s time to slow up,” she said. “It’s time for someone younger to do this.”

The couple share a birthday: Today. Ron is 62 and Elaine is 61.

“It has been my honor to work with Elaine,” said food bank board president John Idsinga, a former Battle Ground mayor and dedicated food bank volunteer. “You can see that with Elaine the food bank is a passion. She has strong feelings about this community. It’s her home.”

The incoming executive director of the North County Community Food Bank is Sherry Lambert — who said she’s also a local girl, living her whole life in and around Battle Ground.

“It’s my town, too,” Lambert said. “It’s our town.”

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.