Organizers for the annual SnowCap food drive hope to collect 1 million pounds of food

Most of us will never have to decide between feeding our children or paying the heat bill.

Yet last year, SnowCap Communities Charities provided more than 25,000 emergency food boxes to East County families faced with exactly that choice.

“There are so many people living on the edge financially and all it takes is one big expense, like a car repair, to push them off,” said Bess Wills, co-coordinator for the Fill-a-Bag food drive, which launches in today’s issue of The Outlook. “That’s why SnowCap is so important. Everything that’s collected stays in the community because that’s who SnowCap serves.”

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Gresham Ford General Manager Bess Wills and SnowCap volunteer Casey Ryan have spearheaded the Fill-a-Bag food drive since its inception four years ago. Feeding the hungry in our own community and neighborhoods is the purpose behind the Fill-a-Bag campaign. Residents are encouraged to either fill the bag found in their newspaper Tuesday, Nov. 19 with non-perishable goods or use the envelope attached to the bag to send in a cash donation. Financial contributions are used by SnowCap to purchase food at a reduced rate through the Oregon Food Bank.

This marks the fourth year local businesses and volunteers have embarked on a mission to help SnowCap help others. Each year, organizers say, community support for the food drive has increased, as well as the number of businesses who commit to placing collection barrels and donation jars in their stores.

The Fill-a-Bag concept was established in the areas around Hood River nine years ago, as an outreach effort by Riverview Community Bank. Casey Ryan, former vice president for Riverview’s Gresham and Wood Village branches, decided to employ the idea locally after serving on the board of directors for SnowCap and witnessing their ongoing struggle to serve their clients.

“It’s incredible what SnowCap does,” Ryan said. “They have so many volunteers, but they don’t get any federal money. Right now, they’re having trouble meeting the demand because the need has increased.”

Ryan calls the first Fill-a-Bag food drive four years ago “pretty unorganized,” despite netting nearly 175,000 pounds of food in its infancy. Organizers are hoping for 1 million pounds of food this year, after collecting approximately 750,000 pounds in 2012.

While brown paper bags full of non-perishable goods do well to replenish SnowCap’s shelves, what most folks don’t realize, Wills said, is the agency’s buying power through the Oregon Food Bank with cash.

“SnowCap pays five cents a pound for food at the food bank,” Wills explained. “There’s no way you can buy 20 pounds of food for a dollar. That’s why we tell people if they really want to help SnowCap, cash donations are best because they can do so much more with it.”

Financial contributions from last year’s Fill-a-Bag totaled “just north” of $15,000, Wills said. Yet both she and Ryan recognize that often people think small donations don’t make an impact.

“Even if you only have one dollar to give, that’s a lot,” Wills said. “We’re not looking for $100 bills, we’re looking for one dollar bills.”

Ryan agrees and points out that 93 percent of each donation given to SnowCap stays in the agency to support their services.

“That’s what I like about this food drive. If you want to fill a bag, you can fill a bag,” Ryan said. “But if everybody gave the $10 they were going to spend on lunch — I mean, you were going to spend it anyway — imagine how many people we could help.”

What tugs at Ryan’s heartstrings, after serving as a SnowCap volunteer and board member, are the families struggling with decisions most of us can’t comprehend.

“My passion is the kids,” he said. “A 10-year-old kid going home for a weekend and not knowing if his last meal at school on Friday will be the only one until Monday? Or a parent having to choose who’s going to eat? I can’t imagine thinking, ‘If I’m going to eat lunch,’ instead of, ‘What am I going to eat for lunch.’”

Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - More than 70 volunteers turned out earlier this month to bundle brown paper bags and attach donation envelopes, in preparation for the food drives launch today. The Fill-a-Bag food drive runs through Friday, Jan. 3. Collection barrels are located at 16 area businesses, including Riverview Community Bank branches in Gresham and Wood Village, Gresham Ford, The Outlook, Stamp Connection, the Troutdale General Store and Gresham Les Schwab. Donation jars also are available in 20 locations around town.

“SnowCap is not a long-term solution for hunger,” Ryan said. “They’re an emergency bridge to get people from one step to another. (Fill-a-Bag) is helping our neighbors, the people who live here. I like to think of this as ‘A rising tide raises all boats.’ ”

More info:

To donate non-perishable items to the Fill-a-Bag food drive, use the brown paper bag found in the Tuesday, Nov. 19 issue of The Outlook. Attached to the bag is an envelope for those who would like to make a cash donation. Remember: SnowCap can purchase 20 pounds of food for $1. Along with staple canned goods and packaged foods, SnowCap is in dire need of baby food and baby formula.

Filled bags may be brought to one of 16 local businesses with collection barrels, including these:

Riverview Community Bank

225 E. Burnside Road, Gresham

23500 N.E. Sandy Blvd., Wood Village

Gresham Ford, 1999 E. Powell Blvd.

The Outlook, 1190 N.E. Division St., Gresham.

Stamp Connection, 109 N.E. Roberts Ave., Gresham.

Troutdale General Store, 289 E. Historic Columbia River Hwy.

Les Schwab, 390 N.E. Burnside Road, Gresham

For more information on the Fill-a-Bag food drive, call Bess Wills at Gresham Ford, 503-665-0101.

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