Rachel Bristol: Feeding the Hungry

achel Bristol’s supreme organizational skills and passionate dedication have helped provide balanced nutrition to hungry Oregonians for nearly 30 years. Nevertheless, as CEO of Oregon Food Bank, Rachel must be realistic about the larger picture. “No matter what we do, it’s still just a drop in the bucket!”

Rachel and the OFB extended network actually carry two humongous buckets. One is near capacity, providing over 80 million pounds of food to about one million hungry people in Oregon and Washington County, or 90% of their work last year. The other bucket accounts for about 10% of their work, but the need in this bucket is even greater than the first. Although both are specific to OFB’s unique and audacious mission—To eliminate hunger and its root causes—the profound complexity and enormity of the issue of the root causes of hunger is one that remains largely unaddressed.

Rachel is a nationally recognized anti-hunger advocate. Among 450 advocates around the country, she received the 2009 Dick Goebel Public Service Award. In 2009, she was awarded Portland Business Journal’s Most Admired Oregon Non-Profit CEO, and in 2004, OFB was recognized as the Most Admired Oregon Non-Profit.

I understand your advocacy has produced new benefits for Portland that address a root cause of hunger?

Thank you, yes. Through Multnomah Food Policy Council, we advocated to increase Learning Gardens to help feed the hungry. Commissioner Fish just announced a commitment to start 1,000 new Community Gardens in Portland by 2015. Also, our county chair recently turned an east county lot into a Learning Garden, with the produce designated to the OFB network. One root cause—so many people have left the farm that we’ve forgotten how to grow our own food and its nutritional value.

Tell us about the Learning Garden program and it’s impact.

We run this program each summer across Oregon. Our volunteer coordinator staffs the gardens. Anyone can volunteer. Follow-up studies reveal 80% of participants continue using skills they’ve learned and eat more healthily. The produce is donated to the hungry in each locality. One man that was invited by a volunteer was an isolated retiree. Now he is revitalized, has a meaningful role, and a new community!

Here’s a favorite story about a vacant lot on N. Williams Avenue where drug addicts and prostitutes would hang out near our old office. Our staff worked the neighborhood asking, “What will happen if we turn this lot into a community garden?” People started coming out of their houses, getting involved in gardening and talking to each other. Children and adults helped plant, harvest and share the produce. The whole neighborhood turned around!

This is community development!

Yes, it addresses my no-brainer question when I started food banking 29 years ago: How can communities develop when people don’t have adequate nutrition? I wish root cause work were a larger part of our work, but OFB cannot be all things for all people. However, we hope these stories will inspire others to help neighborhoods in need.

This is only part of your commitment to fresh food. Tell us about Fresh Alliance.

We piloted Fresh Alliance, a retail recovery program, which has been adopted nationally by other food banks. We pick up, repack at OFB West in Beaverton, and distribute huge volumes of surplus fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat and seafood—fresh and frozen—throughout our network.

Please describe this network.

OFB doesn’t give food directly to hungry people. We are the hub of a network of 950 partner agencies who feed the hungry. Last fiscal year (July ’10 to June ’11), our network collected and distributed 82 million pounds of food—a 10 million pound increase over the previous year. From this facility 45 million pounds went to the Regional Food Banks (RFB) we own in NE Portland, Beaverton, Ontario and Tillamook, and 37 million came to 16 independent RFBs, all of it for distribution to partner agencies throughout Oregon and Clark County, Washington.

Who are all these partner agencies?

Half of them are emergency food programs, pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens, many run by churches. And half are non-profits with feeding programs that asked us for supplemental food because rising food costs and loss of public funding meant they couldn’t feed their needy populations without help.

Can you breakdown for us where last year’s donations came from?

The donated food OFB network served came from: public food drives, 15%; food wholesalers, retailers and growers, 49%; purchased food, 13%; and USDA (Federal Department of Agriculture), 23%.

What influences formed your passion for the hungry? Were you ever hungry?

No, but my dad’s stories were a big influence. He ate frogs and turtles and lived in a one-room house with six older sisters. He went to work at age twelve, when his father died, to feed his sisters. He is certainly one of my heroes. Both my parents came from families used to not much, but were never hungry because they stayed close to the land.

My mother and grandmother were very influential. Avid readers, they talked politics and had opinions! So, I loved reading and went to college and was first in my family to graduate. I also went through some unemployment and terrible sickness that helped me really feel for people going through tough times.

How long were you unemployed and sick?

When I moved to Portland, I was unemployed five months. At another time, I was so sick my recovery took three whole months. When I left the hospital, a friend and her mother took me in. But too weak to be any help to them, I decided to apply for food stamps.

I lived in Tualatin and had to drive to Hillsboro to get in a line at 5:30am, standing for four and a half hours to get a number to return in three more hours for an interview! But driving to my parents’ house in Hillsboro, my blood sugar dropped. I broad sided another car and never made the interview.

Going through difficult times yourself definitely lends a greater perspective towards what you do. How did you get into food banking?

In 1983, I applied for a VISTA volunteer job at Oregon Food Share (OFS). Before I started, OFS had lined up 16 RFBs and asked VISTA volunteers to place a volunteer in each one. One of my jobs was coordinating the volunteers.

How did Oregon’s food boxes become fresh?

Initially, it was serendipitous. In December 1982, Ronald Reagan’s Christmas gift to the hungry was to release federal commodities. Ten truckloads a month came almost daily in my first three months, full of cheese, butter and powdered milk. For private donations, we found and sent trucks to the regions to unload packed food into boxes, and we then distributed them through food banks. I was so amazed there was always surplus food and that farmers, retailers and wholesalers were eager to donate it. My no-brainer was: Prevent surplus food from wasting—provide it to hungry people!

What were some of your obstacles to timely food distribution then and now?

In ‘83 we had no warehouses, refrigeration, or trucks, so public distributions happened here. But in ’84, the feds appropriated funds for transportation and proper storage of surplus food. This enabled us to lease our first warehouse, sharing its 10,000 square foot space equally with Interagency Food Bank (IFB), and to distribute food to the regions.

In 2001 we built this [OFB Headquarters], our main 108,000 square foot facility in NE Portland. A second warehouse—OFB West—opened last year in Beaverton. Today, we own 20 refrigerated trucks, have refrigeration in all 20 RFBs, and are again near capacity in distributing food. For a decade our efficiency has drawn other state food banks to tour our facilities and learn our programs.

What accounts for your near-capacity conditions?

In ’88, two agencies, OFS and IFB, merged creating Oregon Food Bank. Our huge growth and capacity is all about necessity—hunger keeps growing! Even with all we do, it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

How many people are served monthly and annually?

We serve over 275,000 people each month. One million is an estimate of individuals our network served Emergency Food Boxes to last year. Especially the last two weeks of each month. The number rises dramatically when food stamps are gone.

Is there a difference in people served now than those served before 2008?

People more like you and me make up the additional 75,000 people, compared to 200,000 per month before 2008.

What is the make-up of those you serve in a year? How many are looking for work?

Last year, the largest group—52%—was households with children. Teens 17 to infant were 33% of the people served, and 32% of adults were working full or part-time, some with two jobs, but still unable to feed their families. Another 28% were looking for work, disabled, 20%, caregiving, 5%, and retired, 13%.

What does one food box contain?

One average OFB network box feeds a family of four for four days, or about 48 meals, and contains fresh dairy, meat and produce—such as potatoes, vegetables and fruit—in addition to staples, like rice and beans.

Describe Oregon’s hunger need today.

In Oregon, half the school-age children are eligible for school feeding programs, and 30% of all children are hungry. This concerns me most: despite our best efforts and federal food programs like food stamps, 6% of Oregonians report they still go hungry annually, and nearly 25% of Oregon’s adults experience hunger—since 2008!

What other challenges do you face this year?

After the recent 25% drop in food industry donations, we expect a 9 million pound loss of TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program) federal donations. Individual donations make up 60% of our funding. We hope more people will give financially this year, because we’ll need to purchase more food to supplement these losses.

How much food do you purchase?

Since food costs and need rose in 2007, we’ve purchased about 20% of the food we distribute.

That’s one heavy load!

It is 90% of our work and only eliminates hunger for the moment. The flip side is, we’ve lulled people into thinking charity can fill the holes created by those who can’t or don’t pay taxes.

That’s why your root cause work, your mission, is so compelling. It preserves people’s responsibility and dignity by addressing root causes of hunger.

Absolutely! All our root cause work looks for barriers to people’s access to food and work and seeks to eliminate them.

What is FEAST?

FEAST (Food Education Agriculture Solutions Together) is a root cause program that identifies ‘food deserts,’ where food is scarce. We bring communities together to assess food needs, identify resources and educate them. It’s more complex than this, but one root cause is when large food chains moved in, small grocers disappear. Residents are forced to drive many miles just to buy milk! We are also advocating for large chains to help small grocers stay open to minimize creation of new food deserts.

When did you start root cause work and how has it expanded?

In 1990, and it has expanded significantly. We’ve more than doubled our Advocacy and Nutrition Education staff, and added 2 garden coordinators and the volunteer coordinator. Each of our strategic plans—all our advocacy and education—pushes root cause work forward. OFB West added $300,000 to our root cause budget, expanding our Cooking Matters programs.

What is Cooking Matters?

Another root cause is that many people don’t know how to cook and don’t know anything about nutrition. Annually since ‘98, about 150-200 volunteers—professional chefs and accomplished cooks—teach nutrition and basic cooking skills. Cooking Matters is once a week for 6 weeks. Students take home the ingredients to make what they learned to cook for their families. We are always eager for new teachers!

Where are classes held and where do your students come from?

We use a teaching kitchen at OFB West and a demo kitchen here. Both are always busy! Students come from all over our network. Last year, 254 students completed various classes, all which come in Spanish and target various groups, like teenage moms.

What obstacles do you face in root cause work?

We go slowly. Building support is not easy. Growing more on the root cause side with education and programs means we don’t look as efficient compared to food distribution.

What keeps you going?

I hold on to hope that the pendulum must swing back to common sense and love for humanity! What keeps me going is the people and their stories, their hunger for community, dignity and employment, also, all the people who give generously to their neighbors.

For further information visit  www.oregonfoodbank.org

About The Author: Mara Storm