Residents find relief to their socio-economic stresses right in their backyard.
By: Ayan Jama
Although the Jefferson Westside is one of Eugene’s wealthier neighborhoods many still struggle to make ends meet. To help resident’s provide for both themselves and their families FOOD For Lane County has created a variety of well-structured programs to assist the residents of the Eugene/Springfield area.
Even though the FOOD For Lane County’s headquarters are out of the Jefferson Westside area, a few of their smaller food banks are located within. The dining hall, also known as the Dining Room, is located across from WOW Hall on 8th and Lincoln and provides warm meals for those who qualify. Their main food pantry is located on Bailey Hill Road right off of West 11th and single handedly provides food for all the other food banks located in Eugene and Springfield.
The services they provided vary from food pantries in rural communities to providing hot lunches for underprivileged children in the summer. There newest program, The Garden Program, helps to teach families and individuals how to plant seeds, grow crops and harvest them so that they can provide food for themselves.
Their mission statement “to alleviate hunger by creating access to food” is upheld thanks to the hundreds of volunteer that lend their services whenever needed. This means putting together food boxes for the pantry customers, cooking hot meals over at The Dining Room and raising funds for after school meals for children. With the next 3 articles you will read you will see how volunteers along with staff members make it their mission to provide food for every Lane County resident who needs it.
Q & A- Rachel Novak
Rachel Novak walks into The Wandering Goat Coffee Company dressed to the nines. Her black belted Italian leather boots and silky dress scream summertime in spite of the pouring rain outside. Her sense of confidence consumes the room as she walks towards the counter. Heads turns as she brushes her hair off to her shoulder and sits down to greet me. Many would find it hard to believe that this chic woman once struggled to make ends meet.
“Great weather, huh?” Novak says.
How did you first hear about FOOD for Lane County?
I had just moved to the Eugene area after traveling up and down the Californian coast for a while. Friends I had met in the hostels I had stayed in all recommended FOOD and told me they had used it before and it was a great program.
What was your original expectation about FOOD for Lane County? What did you think you were getting yourself into?
To be honest, I thought it was going to be a grimy soup kitchen where the local druggies or homeless would go to get a hot meal and then scram. I expected it to be filthy and gross and that’s a big reason why I didn’t immediately use their services. However, the minute I walked into the warehouse I was taken back by how neat and put together everything was. No soup kitchens, no sketchy drug addicts or drunks, just neatly packed together boxes of food.
So you had a pleasant first experience?
Very much so, that’s a main reason I kept going back until I got on my feet.
Of the programs that FOOD offers, which ones did you utilize?
The [Family] Dining Program and the warehouse pantry.
Can you explain the Family Dining Program?
The Dining Program is located near WOW Hall and operates as a restaurant for anyone who lines up at its doors around 3:30 pm. Basically, you are given a number when you get there and a tray. From there you walk into the restaurant styled building and sit down with either your family or with other individuals. A waiter or waitress comes around to get your drink orders before dinner is served. Dinner ranges from tacos to organic pizza and everything in between. The food is so good and healthy and fresh. The idea that mush is being spooned into a bowl is nothing but a myth here. The whole set up of the place is welcoming and inviting and provides an excellent hot meal.
What were the volunteers like?
They were all extremely friendly and seemed to be happy about what they were doing. I had been to shelters prior to this one and the majority of workers were teenagers who had been sent there because they were court ordered. The Dining Room was filled with nothing but positive vibes and good people. Many of them would sit down and have conversations with you if they saw that you were eating alone. That was something that really touched me. I was new and didn’t know anyone and didn’t have to eat alone.
Wow, that’s not what I expected it to be.
Yeah, my thoughts exactly.
Is anybody allowed to come in and grab this great food?
Well, technically yes but when you get to either the food pantry or the Dining Room you are asked what your family size is and what your income is. From there what you put down is not second checked and is just believe to be true. No one questions you or digs into your background; they just believe that you are telling the truth.
What were the people like that were also receiving food?
Oh, they are so many different people from different walks of life. There are families with several children, single guys and girls, senior citizens, migrant workers, students. A lot of them aren’t what you expected people who received free food to look like. Usually you think of people in tattered clothes, with missing teeth and an eye patch. These people do not fit that mold society has placed upon the homeless at all. Some live in regular houses with their families and make just enough money to the pay the bills and that’s it.
Since you have used their services do you look back on the experience as a positive thing or a negative?
It was definitely the best experience I could have had being a newbie to Eugene and not having a job or any means of income. FOOD for Lane County was there when I literally had nowhere to turn and provided me with a warm meal and sense that I wouldn’t have to go hungry. As I got on my feet and money came in, they provided me with a place where I could still go to eat even though I had a job. Money was tight and they understood it and helped me survive.
Personally, what do you think FOOD for Lane County has done to better your life?
I don’t know where to begin… Without [FOOD For Lane County] it I would’ve had to go to possibly illegal and definitely less ideal ways of getting my food. Many friends that I have encountered on my travels have had to prostitute themselves to eat or sell personal belongings just for a bag of chips. FOOD For Lane County showed me that it’s okay to ask for help and receive it when it’s needed. Never once did I feel judged by the volunteers or staff members that helped me. They provided me with ways to get on my feet and life the live I have always too. I watched them find homes for children who were being abused physically or mentally. I watched them provide a safe haven for families to come eat even though they were living out of their cars. They have gone the distance to help people in trouble and continue to do an excellent job. Will hunger ever not be an issue? Probably not, but [FOOD For Lane County] is trying their damn best to make sure it’s an issue that is tackled in Lane County.
Would you recommend it to someone in need?
Without a doubt I would. I would recommend FOOD to anyone.
And with that Novak checks her watch, “Damn, I am about to miss Desperate Housewives.”
The Dining Room
Stiletto pumps, rotten food, dollar bills, filth.
These are all things Josie McCarthy, the program manager of the Family Dinner Program has seen and lived. While living in the Chicago area during her youth, McCarthy walked with prostitutes, ate from garbage cans and lived on the streets. It was during these dark times that she came up with the idea of opening up a restaurant one day.
While roaming the streets one day with her female companions, the topic of hunger came up and McCarthy suggested they stop into a local restaurant to grab a bite to eat. Immediately her friends told her that they would not be allowed to dine due to the socially unacceptable status of their appearance. “[One of the prostitutes] informed me that she hadn’t been inside a restaurant in almost a decade,” said McCarthy. At that exact moment she made up her mind that she would do something to combat this. “Someday I’ll have a restaurant where everyone can eat,” said McCarthy “[I’ve] always looked our for everyone else.” Years later she has done exactly that.
Before McCarthy was employed with FOOD For Lane County, The Family Dinner Program had been previously run as a soup kitchen. However, because of the lack of structure, the kitchen turned “violent,” she says, and was shut down. McCarthy explained why the soup kitchen style isn’t the way she will ever run her food programs. During the Depression era, people would line up to receive rations of mushy food that was scooped into their cup. From there they were sent on their way. This arrangement of food services made the people who relied on its help even more depressed. McCarthy says that they were basically “calling them in like cattle,” to receive food.
After McCarthy was hired she knew it was time to revamp the old Dining Room. She began by converting the old soup kitchen style of the building into a friendly restaurant layout. Wooden tables with squishy red benches line the walls and a dainty overhead lamp provides the perfect amount of lighting for families and singles that come into dine. Not to mention the state of the art oven, fridges, and freezers that line the back of the building.
The way The Dining Room works is simple. People needing food services come in during the day, make a reservation and get a number. When it is time to eat they are escorted in, given an entrée, salad, and a dessert and seated at a table. Throughout their dining experience volunteer waiters come around and ask for their drink orders and offer their assistance in anyway possible. This new set-up allows staff members and volunteers to become “personal,” McCarthy says, with their customers and eliminates the cattle call feeling.
The Dining Room provides a sanctuary for people struggling from economic issues to come and be “treated with dignity.” There is no discrimination against physical appearances or personal hygiene, McCarthy says. Instead, the point of the Family Dinner Program is to “not marginalize people,” said McCarthy.
People from all over the Lane County utilize the Dining Room. They all vary in age, economic status and race. Families, singles, elderly and youth all come to seek the services of the Dining Room, and that is normal. “Poverty has no face,” said McCarthy
Being located on 8th and Lincoln, The Dining Room has drawn attention from both the friendly homeless to the substance addicted or mentally disturbed.
Eugene law enforcement officers have even told McCarthy that she “serves some of the most dangerous people in Lane County.” However, the people at the Dining Room seem to be on their best behavior and rarely cause issues for themselves, the staff, or the other diners. There is no toleration for swearing, lewd acts of violence, or sexual harassment. “Behavior is a MUST,” said McCarthy.
The most memorable story from the Dining Room McCarthy can recall was about a little girl she encountered about two years ago. After dining one evening the girl approached McCarthy and informed her that her grades were better then they had been because she was able to complete her work. McCarthy later learned that the child had been living out of mother’s car with her two older brothers for the past two years. Her school system thought she was mentally challenged because her handwriting was illegible and papers constantly wrinkled from being crammed into the backseat of the car.
After living in her car for over two years, the child had tattered clothes, crinkled homework papers and no sense of family gathering. Never having heard of anything like that happening, McCarthy was astounded and took it upon herself to make sure she provided some assistance for the family.
“How long had that been going on?” said McCarthy as she recalls her encounter with the child. It was during the little girls constant visits to eat that McCarthy was able to have a DHS worker sit down with the family and help them get back on their feet. Thanks to the Family Dining Program, the child was able to sit down at an actual table while she ate and complete her homework.
This child’s dining experience provided her with the feeling of comfort and family unity, not something she had felt sitting in the backseat of her mother’s car. When the girl was later asked at school if she was poor by a classmate, she responded, “We’re not poor; we eat in a restaurants four nights a week.”
FOOD’s own food pantry
For Karen Edmonds, working with food service issues runs in her blood. Her father was a driver for Meals on Wheels and mother a worker for Freedom From Hunger. As a child, Edmonds would go on routes with her father and witnessed the difficulties many faced to provide food for themselves.
While delivering boxes of food to the elderly Karen noticed that customers weren’t eating the entire contents of the box. The amount of food given was meant to last a day but families were eating less as to make the food last longer. “People are eating less to make food stretch further,” said Edmonds.
Now in charge of anything FOOD For Lane County receives Edmonds spends the majority of her days at the main FOOD pantry located on Bailey Hill Road. It is here that all the food is received and sent out to the various other food pantries in the Lane county area.
The food pantry, which is run as a 501C3 non-profit, is the main hub that other food providers in the Eugene/Springfield area can come to and receive portions of food to distribute. From there these organizations hand out the food to different areas of the Eugene/Springfield area. It is also apart of the Oregon Food Bank Network and receives many of it’s good from the pantries in the Portland Metro area and from the United States Department of Agriculture.
The pantry goes through 6.5 million lbs of food a year and is helped out by over 20,000 volunteers. They are the backbone of this organization and are the big reason FOOD is still able to lend a helping hand. Every day different volunteers wake up to collect, sort and package food. On the weekends they teach classes aimed at helping people learn and retain ways of bettering their lives on their own. The people who help make all this possible “serve with dignity,” Edmonds said.
For people wanting to learn how to grow their own food, the pantry holds workshops such as the Garden Program that help educate. In order to help combat hunger these workshops show people how to provide for themselves. Right around the corner from the workshops is the Churchill Community Garden, which provides students with opportunities to plan and design what goes into the community’s garden beds. Anything that is produced by the students is donated to FOOD for Lane County where it is then given to people in need. This highly sought after program teaches individuals the benefits of having a nutritious diet and an understanding of food.
Nutrition is upheld at FOOD for Lane County and incorporated into the food they provide. Many other pantries give out whatever is non-pershiable and easy to prepare. Food for Lane County respects those other shelters but has vowed it will never take that road. “We strive to be as nutritious as possible,” said McCarthy as she takes out a sample food box. The contents of the food box include soy, meat, bread, fruits and vegetables. Sizes of these boxes vary depending on family size and economic need. In order to qualify for many of FOOD for Lane County’s services families and individuals must provide information about their yearly income. For families of 4 making less then $40,000 dollars a year, services are open to them. Although no legal documents are required, both the staff and volunteers trust that their clients are providing them with factual information.
Many people in need of services do not utilize them and therefore end up starving or having to find other means of getting food, sometimes illegal. “People should not feel embarrassed, we all need help,” said Edmonds “Over 1/3 of the Lane County residents qualifies to get a box.” In 2009 exactly 70,358 adults and children were served from the various food services offered by FOOD and it’s partners.
To increase awareness of FOOD For Lane County and the services they provide, a rollout of media messages are currently being created. These PSA’s will help reach more people who are eligible for the various services. Many residents who are struggling to make ends meet sometimes do not know that they qualify at all. These new media messages are aimed at “encouraging people” and educating them about ways to get assistance. Edmonds says she hopes that the new media tactics are successful in building awareness of FOOD and increased community participation.
The Eugene pantry is open four days a week and holds normal business hours. It is unusual for a pantry to remain open that many days a week but due to the rural landscape of Lane County a steadly open pantry needs to be available. The panties that are available for people living outside the city limits are only open once or twice a month making the main food pantry more heavily relied upon.
When the food pantry is open, is it set-up in what Edmonds calls a “shopping style.” Tables are connected in the middle of the floor by a U-shape. Every table is stocked with one certain type of food. One will be an assortment of breads while others hold meat, fruits and vegetables. Individuals stand in line with a cart, much like at the supermarket, and go around picking out what foods they want. Of course portions are regulated and no one able to have too much of one product, but it’s a good way of letting people feel like they are in control of what goes into their body.
Overall Edmonds believes FOOD For Lane County is a “beautiful network,” and feels grateful to be apart of it. She explained that sometimes food shelters in the same city will compete with each other for funds of food. Thankfully that is not the case with FOOD or any of their partners. Together they are working diligently day by day to eliminate hunger.