Oregon produce shipments to local food banks to end

Clark County Food Bank strives to fill pantries' needs

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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A monthly distribution of free, fresh produce to needy people in Clark County is winding down, just because the food comes from Oregon. The leader of the Clark County Food Bank said his agency is hustling to pick up the slack, but it's got a far smaller territory and far fewer resources to work with.

"We don't have access to 10,000-acre farms in Clark County, we don't have access to the entire state of Oregon like the Oregon Food Bank has," said Alan Hamilton, executive director of the Clark County Food Bank.

While the Oregon Food Bank's "Harvest Share" program is withdrawing from Clark County, Hamilton said the overall amount of fresh produce that the Clark County Food Bank is redistributing to local food pantries has actually gone up, not down. The problem, he said, is particular pantries where people have grown used to regular Harvest Share distributions.

"That program is being phased out. From the standpoint of what those people access, it's no longer there. But there are many other opportunities for fresh produce in Clark County," he said.

According to Clark County Food Bank operations manager James Fitzgerald, four small pantries are the ones that received monthly distributions, and have lost it now: the Inter-Faith Treasure House in Washougal, the North County Community Food Bank in Battle Ground, the Angels of God pantry at the Lord's Gym in Vancouver, and the One Life pantry in Vancouver.

"(Clients) were able to get everything from potatoes to onions and apples and citrus -- just a wide variety of things we ordinarily wouldn't have," said Elizabeth Cerveny, executive director of the North County Community Food Bank in Battle Ground. For people who are too accustomed to eating out of boxes and cans, she said, "it was a kind of delicacy, almost."

"The Oregon Food Bank is no longer going to be a regional distributor here. They're no longer going to be dropping produce off," said Nancy Wilson, the long-standing executive director of the Interfaith Treasure House and one of the original creators of the food pantry network that became the Clark County Food Bank, which is now an independent nonprofit.

"Because of that spinoff, the Clark County Food Bank is responsible for gathering food for us smaller food banks. Of course they are new and they don't have the resources that (the Oregon Food Bank) does. There just isn't enough produce to have a separate Harvest Share program," Wilson said.

That program used to truck fresh produce over from Oregon on a monthly basis, she said. The truck turned up on the third Tuesday of every month at the Washougal Interfaith Treasure House with about 5,000 pounds of produce, and about 200 households — perhaps representing as many as 1,000 people, Wilson said — brought their own grocery bags to take it home. At the North County Community Food Bank, Cerveny said, there were approximately 100 households that regularly took home Harvest Share produce from distributions in Kiwanis Park on the first Monday of every month.

Wilson said people who depend on that produce "don't really understand" why administrative boundaries and changing programs should result in their losing out and going hungrier. "It's like their food is being taken away. It seems like so much politics. For us, we've known this transition was going to come and we've been preparing for a year or so. But for them, when it actually hits, it hurts," she said.

"It's going to hurt until … the Clark County Food Bank can develop their resources," she said.

'Fundamental'

"I can't imagine that anyone thinks fresh produce isn't important to young kids and disabled and elderly people who depend on this," said Jacinta Cox of Camas. She said her husband is disabled and they have several young children. By the third Tuesday of the month, when the Harvest Share distribution has regularly come around, their disability benefits and food stamps have run out.

"This program literally makes or breaks our being able to have fresh produce for our kids," she said. "Without that extra produce on the last week, I don't know how I can have fruits and vegetables for them. It seems so fundamental to me."

Wilson said the growing network of community gardens in Clark County that contribute to local pantries and the central Clark County Food Bank are "very appreciated, but when we get produce from Harvest Share it comes in pallets. It's not limited. We just aren't able to replace that with local sources."

She added that she's not criticizing Hamilton and his crew. The Portland metropolitan area is rich with "salad companies, produce companies, regional distributors, and that blues festival. It all stays over there now. For the Clark County Food Bank to go from being a small distribution center to taking on all this responsibility is quite a task.

"The only thing I wish is that the Oregon Food Bank would have given us a little longer to develop and mature," she said.

Hamilton said the Clark County Food Bank still does have a relationship with the Oregon Food Bank, and still does receive approximately 1 million pounds of food from south of the river every year. But CCFB does have a greater responsibility now to grow and maintain its own infrastructure and network within Clark County, he said, and it is doing so.

"We're working on the produce end," he said. "We're working with every farm in town that's willing to donate produce." Last year, he said, the food bank redistributed 125,000 pounds of food from local farms.

"We have dramatically increased the amount of fresh produce that comes from local grocery stores," he said. "It's more than produce, it's meat and dry goods. But the largest increase is in the produce area."

Nonetheless he conceded that distributions to individual pantries will vary, based partially on what they request.

"We have pantries that love shelf-stable food and others that love produce," he said. "We get conflicting need requests from different pantries.

"There isn't enough food," he concluded. "We are always trying to get more."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits