For the past four years, the South Clatsop County Food Bank had always counted on the North Coast Family Fellowship as a steady source for donations.
But at the beginning of this year, regional manager Karla Gann started to see more and more blue bags filled to the brim with food donations. Instead of receiving 500 to 800 pounds of food from the church like she expected, she started getting monthly donations of 800 to 1,400 pounds.
It’s called blue bag Sunday. The first Sunday of the month, the congregation of the North Coast Family Fellowship piles fruits, vegetables, canned goods and more into blue bags that read “With Love” on the side, and leave them in the church for the food bank to pick up Monday. This church alone makes up one-tenth of all donations to the food bank.
It’s a type of donation Gann rarely sees from a private entity, and she said the impacts are huge.
“We can go from distributing 65 pounds of food to a family at one time to 125 pounds. Before we were able to give out about on average three days worth of food to a recipient,” Gann said. “Because of this increase, now I can give out closer to five days worth of food at a time. This helps get people through.”
In Clatsop County, that means helping the 390 to 470 families who come in each month needing food to get by before payday.
“It keeps the money flowing. We are saving $700 to $1,000 a month to keep the lights and to build a reserve instead of spending it on building up our food supply,” she said. “Everyone here is a volunteer. So it’s significant.”
When John Neagle joined the North Coast Family Fellowship last October, the pastor liked how the ministry had connected with the community through donations to the food bank. So starting in January, he challenged his congregation to do more.
Tyler Evans, a volunteer with the church, said the office started greeting people at the door with blue bags inscribed with the words “With Love.”
“It’s easier to donate when you have a reminder,” Evans said.
Neagle said he made expanding the relationship with the food bank, which the church has had since 2012, a priority because it is an easy, yet impactful, way to connect with the community.
“When people offer, sometimes it’s just a few items, and other times they bring two bags packed to the gills that takes two hands to carry,” Neagle said. “Sharing helps the person you are sharing with, but it’s also helpful for those who are giving the food. We’re not just trying to give you a can of food; we’re trying to share God’s love through that can of food.”
Children’s ministries director Annie Utterback said helping to feed the community is an important way as Christians to be a helping hand for all.
“This is a way for us to reach out without people having to walk through our door,” she said.
The fellowship plans to keep expanding its contribution to the food bank, as well as local shelters and other social services, Neagle said.
“It’s about blessing people where they are at, and showing them love through food,” worship arts and student ministries director Sam Hughes said.
Meeting a need
An estimated 25 percent of county residents qualify for emergency food assistance, Clatsop County Regional Food Bank Director Marlin Martin said, a figure that has remained steady for the past five years. More than 6,850 people used emergency food resources last year.
“We have continued for the past 11 years to see increases in the number of emergency food boxes being distributed and the number of people visiting food banks, even though the population hasn’t grown significantly,” Martin said. “Those people living in poverty have fallen into deeper crevasses of poverty. We count each household as individual visits, and we see the same households coming more often.”
Clatsop County isn’t alone. The Oregon Center for Public Policy reported last year that 1 in 6 families statewide lack consistent access to adequate food. Oregon has also seen the largest increase in food insecurity, spiking 18.4 percent since the Great Recession. “We don’t have enough living wage jobs for people to meet their food needs,” Martin said.
To meet this steadily increasing need, Martin said the regional food bank is working on securing more funds to implement a mobile soup kitchen later this fall — much like the mobile produce bank that has provided fresh vegetables and fruits for the past three years.
It’s not a problem Gann sees going away anytime soon. But if she can keep handing out five days worth of food instead of three, she sees it as one more way to help people just make it through.
“I have a passion for food, and a passion for people,” she said. “We want to provide as much variety and choice as we can for people who visit us, and donations like this keeps us from falling into just rice and beans.”