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As people need help, Food Bank responds

MY VIEW • Oregon Food Bank seeks support to deal with rising requests for food
by: Kyle Green, 
Piles of canned food wait to be shipped to the needy at the warehouse of the Portland Police Bureau’s Sunshine Division. Oregon Food Bank head Rachel Bristol writes that her organization will need to raise an additional one million pounds of food per month to provide food boxes to the growing number of families asking for help.

'Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of rebuilding America. For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.'

That was President Obama's call to action during an extraordinary week as he signaled 'a new era of responsibility.'

His message comes at a critical time. Oregon's unemployment has climbed to 9 percent - its highest point in 23 years - and has not likely reached its peak.

'That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood,' President Obama said. 'Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered.'

And as unemployment and foreclosures climb, so does the number of people who seek emergency food through the Oregon Food Bank Network.

Prior to the current economic crisis, the food bank network was already providing emergency food boxes to approximately 800,000 people in Oregon and Clark County, Washington.

Demand for emergency food has been rising rapidly in rural areas since fall 2007. By summer 2008, foreclosures, layoffs and rising food costs forced more families in the Portland metropolitan area to seek our help. By October, local food pantries were seeing double digit increases and many new faces - people who have never asked for help before, those who just a few months ago had family-wage jobs. They include bankers, realtors, title company and construction workers, seniors with dwindling retirement funds, grandparents who don't have enough to feed the adult children and grandchildren they are now sheltering.

President Obama has called on us to look after one another. That's something we see first hand, every day, at Oregon Food Bank.

An estimated 2,000 volunteers donate their time each month to repack food at the Oregon Food Bank and to help distribute food at local food pantries. More than 800 businesses and organizations raised 300,000 pounds of food during the 2008 holiday season. Large donations from Meyer Memorial Trust, Wal-Mart Foundation and NW Natural enabled us to purchase nearly a million pounds of food to help our network feed an additional 90,000 people this winter.

An 11-year-old contributed her allowance. A 9-year-old with brain cancer brought 500 pounds of food to a food drive organized by the Oregon Zoo. State legislators volunteered their time and called on our communities to keep up the momentum as the need continues to rise in the new year. The outpouring of generosity warmed our hearts and provided nourishment and hope to our neighbors in need.

As the need for food and other life essentials continues to climb in the months ahead, we pray for the continued collaboration, community support and new resources that will be required to respond. The Oregon Food Bank Network alone will need to raise an additional one million pounds of food each month to provide four emergency food boxes a year to each of the growing number of families turning to us for help. There are many ways you can help. Visit our website at www.oregonfoodbank.org for more information on the food bank's needs and initiatives and to find food bank network agencies in your area that need your support as well.

We also encourage you to:

• Donate funds: Visit www.oregonfoodbank.org to donate online. We need your help throughout the year.

• Donate food. In February, support the Governor's State Employees Food Drive.

• Advocate. Ask your elected officials to support policies that help the most vulnerable in our communities.

• Volunteer. Oregon Food Bank's network of local food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other agencies can use your help.

As President Obama so eloquently reminded us, by helping others, we help ourselves: 'The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.'

Rachel Bristol is the executive director and CEO of Oregon Food Bank. She lives in Sellwood.