Backpack Program

Bags of food await distribution at Highland Hills Elementary School in Hermiston in 2019. The Agape House is still distributing the bags to students in need on weekends.

The surge in grocery buying and disruptions to the supply chain sparked by COVID-19 are having a trickle-down effect on food banks.

Tori Colvard, program manager for CAPECO, said the regional organization gets the food it distributes mainly from the Oregon Food Bank. But those supplies are usually supplemented by donations from retailers.

“We have seen those numbers take a dive, because our grocery stores don’t have that extra product,” she said. “They’re selling out of things.”

Fortunately, Colvard said, others are stepping up. Individuals and businesses are making monetary donations, and Farmers Ending Hunger, a nonprofit consortium of Oregon farmers, has pledged this year to double their donations of vegetables and other fresh farm products.

Although people like to do canned food drives, right now Colvard said CAPECO prefers cash donations made online. That prevents the dangers of people coming in person to the warehouse and dropping off items that could be contaminated, and the donation goes farther.

”We can turn a dollar into a lot more food than a can,” she said.

As unemployment increases at a record-setting pace, Colvard said they are seeing an uptick in people inquiring if they qualify for services such as an emergency food box or assistance paying their utility bill. To help with that, CAPECO is distributing fliers and far and wide to describe their services and how to access them.

”We’re getting calls from a lot of folks that have never had to ask for help before, and don’t feel comfortable, or don’t know how to access services,” she said.

She said so far the larger communities CAPECO serves in its four-county area are holding fairly steady for traffic to food pantries, but small communities have seen a big increase. State and federal programs, from the $1,200 check many Americans are getting, to increased unemployment benefits, to the state increasing the amount of food stamps people get, should help take some of the burden off nonprofits in trying to serve such a large increase in unemployed families, she said.

In Hermiston, Agape House director Cathy Putnam said their food pantry saw a dip in visitors when stay-home measures were first implemented, but now they’re seeing an increase.

“We’re seeing families we’ve never seen before,” she said.

She said usually the Agape House hands out boxes with three to five days’ worth of food, meant to fill in the gap until the person gets their next paycheck or benefits, but for now they’re giving more than that.

When school was in session, the Agape House ran a “backpack program” that each weekend sent food home with students who the school knew may not have enough to eat otherwise. Now that schools have switched to distance learning and are dropping off meals on bus routes during the week, the Agape House is continuing the backpack program to drop off extra food on Fridays to students who need it.

Putnam said they’re struggling to keep that program stocked with ready-to-eat foods for students such as crackers, peanut butter, raisins, granola bars, applesauce cups and canned food, as many of those items they used to be able to buy by the pallet-load are often sold out at local stores.

A full list of needed foods can be found at agaphehousehermiston.org, and the building at 500 Harper Road is open 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday through Friday and 1-3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday for people to drop off donations. They are only taking food and money right now, not household goods, Putnam said, to reduce the number of volunteers needed to come in and sort donations.

Putnam said during this difficult time, it has been amazing to see the way people in the community have stepped up to help, from cash donations to the family who made Easter baskets for all the children currently living at the Martha’s House shelter.

“We live in a wonderful, generous community,” she said. “People have been calling, people I don’t even know, saying, ‘What can I do?’”

Statewide, the Oregon Food Bank stated in early April that supplies were running low due to increased demand. The food bank distributes food to the state’s 21 area food banks, such as Agape House and CAPECO, and the 1,400 distribution sites they run.

On Monday, Governor Kate Brown announced the state would be giving the Oregon Food Bank $8 million in assistance, paid in weekly installments over the next eight weeks. She said in a news release that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was expected to reimburse the state for 75% of the cost.

“(The Oregon Food Bank) is facing an increase in demand while they also address a significant decrease in food donations from commercial sources,” she said. “This funding supports Oregon Food Bank’s efforts to ensure resources remain available to Oregonians facing food insecurity — bridging the gap until additional food and funds from the federal CARES Act reach Oregon.”

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