By Janet Goetze
For the Hollywood Star News
Every time volunteers with the Portland Food Project go to the grocery store, they pick up extra items to drop in a bright green bag. After two months, each sturdy bag—a typical reusable grocery bag—is full of nonperishable items. An area coordinator picks up the bags on his or her route every two months, and takes them to the Northeast Emergency Food Program, 4800 N.E. 72nd Ave., where the food is apportioned to about 20 food pantries around the city.
It’s a simple way to assist local people who turn to food pantries to help feed their households, said Mary Notti and Judy Romano, members of the steering committee for the organization that started four years ago in Portland. With volunteers around the city, the food project provides a steady, year-round supply of groceries to the pantries instead of a once-a-year food drive that may leave shelves bare in some months.
“One of the most important things to know is that it’s really easy to participate,” said Karen Beck, an Arbor Lodge neighborhood resident in North Portland.
After looking for an organization where she could volunteer, a neighbor told her about the project about a year ago. Food and homelessness are issues that concern her, said Beck, and she knew from a disabled relative that food assistance is very important. Beck, a graphic designer, often shops with her husband at Costco, where they may purchase large amounts of non-perishable items that help fill their green bags.
“I try to focus on high protein food,” she said. “The food banks say this project donates a lot of high protein foods.”
She also follows suggestions to include low-salt selections and protein drinks that seniors and others may need for health reasons, and she picks up items that younger children may need.
“State and federal funds can’t be used for personal items—tooth brushes, toothpaste and deodorant,” she said. Adding those items to a bag also is welcome, she said.
After signing up as a volunteer, Beck eventually became an area coordinator, picking up bags and leaving new ones on the second Saturday of even-number months: February, April, June, August, October and December. At first, she collected bags at 13 households, but recently her group has grown to 20, she said.
Project coordinators recommend collecting bags from neighbors on a block or two, or at church, or at work, or however a volunteer wants to define a group. In addition to collecting food, said Romano, the project can build a sense of community as donors and coordinators get to know one another.
The project took root in 2009 when a group of Ashland residents learned the southern Oregon town’s single pantry was nearly out of food. The group began collecting supplies in what they called their “Green Bag” program, which has grown to more than 40 projects across the country. A Medford social worker, Richard Nudelman, joined a project then brought green bags with him four years ago when he moved to Portland and began recruiting volunteers.
Today, the program has more than 500 donors with 35 neighborhood coordinators in North and Northeast Portland alone, Notti said. In the Portland metro area, 1,329 donors fill green bags, she added. Unfortunately, Nudelman died unexpectedly in 2015, but the eight-member steering committee agreed to continue the work, Romano said. “Then we found out how much work he had been doing,” she said.
“It took us a while to sort it out,” Notti said, noting Nudelman didn’t use a computer although he seemed to know all the coordinators and many donors.
The local project has been growing, and by mid-2016 had collected 44,429 pounds of food since the beginning of the year. That translates to 37,024 meals provided, Notti said.
One of the largest food collections was in June, with 16,361 pounds, after coordinators reminded donors that summer is a lean time for many families because children don’t have meals at school.
Only last December, when donations are typically large, was more food collected, Notti said. According to the Oregon Food Bank, 34 percent of those receiving emergency food are children, and one in six Oregonians faces food insecurity.
Participation not only is easy, said Beck, “It makes you feel good to know you are helping other people.”
For more information: The Portland Food Project, www.portlandfoodproject.org, gro.t1511237285cejor1511237285pdoof1511237285dnlal1511237285trop@1511237285ofni1511237285, (503) 775-2110, www.facebook.com.