Friday, November 13, 2009

Fighting Hunger

Published Nov. 11, 2005, in the Keizertimes

On another day, the line outside John Knox Community Food Bank would stretch well beyond the the awning covering the entrance.

But today it’s raining. Sometimes sideways.

“The week before Thanksgiving we’ll have people lined up at 7 a.m. for the food bank to open at 9:30,” said Don Gardner, who has volunteered at the food bank for eight years.

Gardner acts as a “mule” to assist clients take their boxes out to their cars. When he started volunteering, he was the only mule. Now there are four.

The week before Thanksgiving, food bank volunteers add turkeys and hams to food boxes.

On this blustery Thursday, those waiting for the food bank to open are huddled close under the awning waiting to take home a food box that will, if it’s carefully used, last about seven days.

In a month, many of them will be back again.

Of the more than 50 local food banks in Marion County, John Knox Presbyterian Church is home to the only one in Keizer. The demand for its services has grown every year since it opened in 1989.

“We give out about 100 boxes a month, and the Marion-Polk Food Share thinks we’re only meeting about 3 percent of the need in Keizer,” said Paul Morgan, the food bank director.

Each week the food bank supplies about 55 Keizer households with additional groceries. If that accounts for just 3 percent of the need, then about 1 in 6 Keizer households could use the extra box of edibles.

The food banks clients come from all walks of life.

Salvador Ramirez, 45, of Salem became a client when his 40-hour-a-week job at the Norpac plant in Brooks wasn’t enough to make ends meet for his wife and three children.

Ramirez said he went to a food bank in Salem first, but then heard about John Knox from friends.

When his schedule allows, Ramirez now volunteers at the food bank. He is also a familiar face for Hispanic clients who might otherwise feel intimidated.

“People come in and they recognize Salvador and strike up a conversation,” said Morgan.

Lucille Jensen said the food bank is one of the best kept secrets in the area.

“We’re very generous with our food boxes,” she said.

In addition to essentials received from the Marion-Polk Food Share, John Knox provides its own food either bought or donated to sweeten the pot. Clients are allowed to “shop” the excess donations based on need.

Catarino Moreno is another volunteer who is also a client of the food bank. Unable to work because of health problems, Moreno benefits from the extra food.

However, in the past year, he’s become the food bank’s translator. He hitches a ride with Jensen each Thursday and helps process clients as they come in.

“I liked what they did for me, and now I get to pay them back by volunteering,” Moreno said.

Morgan said the while many volunteers come and go, the core group of about 10-12 people provide “a friendly consistency” that brings clients back again and again.

Volunteer Lowell Loveless rides the bus more than an hour each week from Southeast Salem to volunteer at the food bank. After the food bank closes about noon, Loveless makes the trek home with a sense of accomplishment.

“People need the help and we got it done,” he said.

While the food bank is an outreach of the church, only a handful of the volunteers are members. The food bank has truly become a community project.

In his third year as director, Morgan said he’s still amazed at the volunteers’ ability to pull it off.

“It takes so many people to make this thing work but it does. Every week,” Morgan said. “And now we’re trying to figure out how to expand.”

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