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Clark Neighbors Food Project helps fill pantry shelves, even more so during pandemic

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
7 Photos
From right: Sandi Christensen, a volunteer coordinator with the Clark Neighbors Food Project, leaves her Arnada home on Saturday morning with her great-nieces -- Madison Pierce, 16, Lyla Hart, 16, and Mia, 13 -- to collect nonperishable food from donors in her neighborhood.
From right: Sandi Christensen, a volunteer coordinator with the Clark Neighbors Food Project, leaves her Arnada home on Saturday morning with her great-nieces -- Madison Pierce, 16, Lyla Hart, 16, and Mia, 13 -- to collect nonperishable food from donors in her neighborhood. (Elayna Yussen for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Clark Neighbors Food Project co-founder Debbie Nelson has a saying: “Hunger is not seasonal, so neither is the Clark Neighbors Food Project.”

The program, also known as the Green Bag Project, makes it easy for people to donate nonperishable food to help alleviate food insecurity in Clark County.

Every two months, more than 2,000 local residents place green bags of food on their front porches. The donations are then collected by more than 100 volunteers — called neighborhood coordinators — who distribute them to local food pantries and school family resource centers.

“We have networks of food donors who have signed up to donate food every two months, and that really ensures that the food pantries and food banks and school family resource centers receive a steady and reliable supply of food all through the year,” Nelson said.

Food-collection days occur on the second Saturday of every other month.

By noon this Saturday, a steady stream of volunteers had already delivered more than 7,000 pounds of food to FISH Vancouver, where more volunteers helped load the bags into the food pantry’s warehouse.

“We do this every two months, rain or shine,” Nelson said.

On average, the Clark Neighbors Food Project nets 20,000 pounds of food every two months. In 2021, the program collected a total of 110,698 pounds. For comparison, the 2021 Walk and Knock food drive collected 104,000 pounds of food.

In addition to collecting and distributing food, the Clark Neighbors Food Project is about building community, Nelson said.

“The key to success here is the neighborhood coordinators,” she said.

When someone decides to sign up as a neighborhood coordinator, they can invite anyone in their neighborhood to join them as a food donor. But people don’t have to organize amongst their neighbors. Instead, it could be centered around a book or service club, a hiking group or a church. And the size of the group doesn’t matter: Some neighborhood coordinators oversee a few food donors, while others oversee more than 100.

Neighborhood coordinators pick up food donations on designated days, and they help remind their donors when donation days are coming up. Additionally, neighborhood coordinators can help their food donors identify what items are most needed at their local distribution sites.

The setup allows neighbors to get to know one another, and it provides a sense of shared purpose, Nelson said.

“As a neighborhood leader who has been involved with this project since it was only in its idea stage, it has been inspiring to watch the growth and blooming of a desire to help out other neighbors,” said Cherryl Burkey, neighborhood coordinator and chair of the Truman Neighborhood Association. “I have watched this sustainable food project spread from one neighbor to another, from one neighborhood to another, from one city to another across Clark County. It even spread in my own family, with my grandson and son helping my husband and me. We are a three-generational family volunteer team.”

“The Green Bag neighborhood food collection has become a valuable piece of our neighborhood experience,” said Kate Griffith, neighborhood coordinator for the Sherwood Neighborhood. “It’s enabled us to check on a few elderly neighbors who don’t get many visitors, has mobilized people to join the neighborhood association, and (has) generally facilitated communication and awareness among neighbors.”

When Debbie Nelson and her husband, Greg, started the Clark County Food Project in 2017, they had four volunteers. Now, the program has expanded across Clark County, with more than 100 neighborhood coordinators who oversee more than 2,000 food donors.

Neighborhood coordinators try to keep donated food within their neighborhood if possible. In 2017, the program distributed food mostly to FISH Vancouver and two school family resource centers. Now, it distributes food to some 15 sites across the county.

The program didn’t stall during the COVID-19 pandemic; instead, it doubled in size.

“During the pandemic, people knew there was a huge need, and they knew they wanted to help,” Nelson said. “In 2020, we collected about 60,000 pounds of food that year. In 2021, it was close to 120,000.”

While the program has grown more than Nelson ever expected, she hopes it continues to grow.

“If we get just one new neighborhood coordinator, they could bring on 50 or 100 new food donors,” Nelson said. “That’s really the key to this whole project is going into more neighborhoods and getting more coordinators.”

Nelson hopes to bring on new neighborhood coordinators in Camas, Battle Ground and Washougal, where there are fewer than there are in Vancouver.

If you’re interested in becoming a food donor or neighborhood coordinator, or if you’re interested in other volunteer opportunities with the Clark Neighbors Food Project, visit clarkfoodproject.org or call 360-699-5441.

The next food-collection day will be Saturday, Aug. 13 — the program’s five-year anniversary.

In April, the Clark Neighbors Food Project was awarded the 2021 Neighborhood Leadership Award from the Neighborhood Associations Council of Clark County.

“This program is really helping folks put food on the table during these really hard times,” Nelson said.

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Columbian staff writer