A year full of disasters finally got the ball rolling on Boardman’s first food pantry for residents in need.

The project has blossomed rapidly since it began in March.

“We went from a closet full of donated food in March to over $150,000 in mid-September,” Anna Browne said.

Browne, Oregon State University Extension’s open campus coordinator in Umatilla and Morrow counties, said she didn’t think the pantry would exist today if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. Boardman received a $4,325 grant from the Oregon Food Bank in 2018, but talks about how to use the money had stalled until plummeting employment numbers in March spurred community members into action.

An employee of Columbia River Health voiced concerns about people needing food, First Baptist Church of Boardman volunteered to start handing it out and the Oregon Food Bank gave its blessing for the grant to go toward that effort. Browne lent her expertise to help the new pantry gain official nonprofit status and create a board and bylaws. The health clinic donated shelving. Local farms and food processors like Tillamook, Lamb Weston and Threemile Canyon Farms began donating food, along with individuals and other churches.

The donations really took off, however, a severe wind storm in May caused significant damage in Boardman, including mobile homes destroyed by falling trees in Wilson Road Mobile Home Park. Oregon Food Bank responded with 102 emergency food boxes and three additional pallets of food.

Later, Amazon Web Services donated $25,000 to the pantry, and the Morrow County Board of Commissioners recently voted to use $100,000 of its CARES Act funding to help the pantry purchase a permanent location (Browne said they believe they have found a suitable building but it is not finalized yet).

Mary Killion, board chair for the pantry, said she was thrilled to see how much the pantry was already serving residents in need.

“This is the most exciting thing I think I’ve ever been a part of,” she said. “The volunteers are committed, and they have made it so easy, and everyone has been so supportive, I feel like I can’t take any credit.”

More than 100 households are being served every week, through picking up food at the church or having it delivered if they don’t have transportation, are sick or are worried about their risks for COVID-19. Food is available for pickup from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Mondays, and Thursdays from 6-7 p.m.

“We are getting new faces every week from people that just heard about us. We don’t get the same people every week, because people are trying to make it on their own. I believe that with all my heart,” Killion said.

Shara Wiess of First Baptist Church of Boardman said people in the community have been extremely supportive. The first round of food came from a woman whose husband had recently died, and she used a portion of the life insurance check to shop for food for the pantry.

“People (receiving the free food) have asked what they can do for the church — can they clean? Can they pull weeds?” she said.

Boardman residents were previously able to go pick up food at Irrigon’s food pantry, about 12 miles away, but that was a hardship for people who didn’t have transportation or needed to save their gas money for work. In light of that, Boardman’s new pantry decided to offer drop-off services as well as pickups. They have delivered to families in quarantine or sick with COVID-19, and people who still haven’t recovered their transportation after the wind storm knocked a tree onto their car in May.

The pantry currently operates independently, but it is working on becoming affiliated with the larger network of food pantries in Eastern Oregon through CAPECO.

Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty, who has been the county’s liaison with the food pantry’s board, said there were many good reasons for the county to direct CARES Act dollars toward funding a permanent location for the pantry.

While the Port of Morrow generates a significant property tax base and high-paying jobs for the county, many of the salaries paid by businesses are going to people who live and shop in Hermiston or the Tri-Cities in Washington, and Doherty said there are still plenty of people who live in poverty in the shadows of the factories and data centers.

“With all our successes in Morrow County, we can’t rest until the least of us is taken care of,” he said.

Doherty said helping give people a hand up during a difficult time, particularly young people, can set them on a path to avoid the health problems and other issues caused by the chronic stress of poverty.

He said if the food pantry gets set up in its own building instead of a room at the church, the location could become a “clearinghouse” of other services people could also access.

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