A volunteer at Keizer Community Food Bank restocks shelves at Faith Lutheran Church. Local leaders are looking for a year-round response to the problem that’s increased rather than decreased during the past year. (File photo)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Jim Donnell and his common law wife don’t have a choice.

Their home is a 20-foot motorhome in Keizer city limits. A single room doubles as a bedroom, kitchen and living area, there’s a bathroom in the rear. A small television streaming NASCAR from the satellite dish outside rests on the bunk above the driver’s cab. It’s one of the few apparent luxuries, but Donnell admits he hasn’t paid the bill recently.

A pick-up is parked outside, but escalating gas prices are too much for Donnell to drive it.

“I walk a lot – about 3-5 miles every day – and just happened to be walking down the road and saw the sign for the food bank,” said Donnell, who sits on a cushion atop a cooler.

Donnell, 67, is a semi-regular visitor to the Keizer Community Food Bank (KCFB) where volunteers assemble emergency food boxes for local families in need. He started making monthly trips in November, but he had to enlist a friend to go along with him after his wife declined. It made him feel less conspicuous.

After a lifetime of working in sawmills and on garbage trucks, Donnell and his wife are making do on his social security check. They’re stretching it to the outer limits, but they’re far from alone in feeling tapped, said Curt McCormack, director of KCFB.

“We had a grandmotherly woman come through and I didn’t think a lot about it, but when I asked her how big her family was she said seven people – she had just gotten custody of her six grandkids,” McCormack said. “The other day we got a call from a woman, her husband and child living in a tent at Wallace Marine Park. They didn’t have transportation and were completely out of food.”

McCormack gathered up an emergency food box and delivered it to the park.

Depending on who is talking, the economy is either in a turnaround or it isn’t. Either way, hunger remains a growing concern in Keizer and throughout Marion and Polk counties, said Sarah Perryman, a campaign manager for Marion-Polk Food Share.

“When the recession began, we saw families’ safety nets – savings accounts, 401Ks, pensions – get stretched, but now they’ve run out,” she said.

Fifty-eight-year-old Judy Stone lives alone in a small apartment not too far from the food bank. After a year-and-a-half wait, she’s hoping a new job opportunity will turn into something closer to full-time work than the 15 hours a week she’s cobbled together by working for family and at her church in the past two years.

She has a degree in early childhood education, but found she’s been over-qualified for many of the positions she would gladly have taken given the chance.

“I take the bus to go everywhere so I was walking by when I saw the signs for the food bank, but then a neighbor who volunteers there told me to come down to see if I qualified,” Stone said.

Stone cut out most of the luxuries from her life, but medical bills thinned her resources.

“Around July or August last year, it got to the point where the bills had to be paid, but I didn’t have enough to cover the food,” Stone said.

For Donnell and Stone, emergency food boxes provide a lifeline when choices would feel like a luxury.

“It helps me a great deal. We buy other food to go with what’s in the boxes and it can last about a month,” Donnell said.

Occasionally, Stone ends up with more than she can eat on her own and she shares it with her brother’s family. His work has also been sporadic recently. Her children also plant a garden each year and, during harvest time, the fresh veggies round out square meals she makes from the supplies in the food boxes.

Donnell has a friend with a deep freezer near where he parks the motorhome and it allows him and stock up when meats are on sale.

Both discovered seeking assistance from KCFB a departure from what they expected when they walked in the doors.

“I was surprised. I thought a lot of people would look down their nose at me, but no one ever did, they’re all real friendly people over there,” Donnell said.

While KCFB and Marion-Polk Food Share see spikes in the number of boxes given out around the holidays, the need is ever-present. Children are often some of the primary recipients of the food doled out by both organizations and, in 2011, May and June followed close behind November, December and October in the numbers of kids eating from food box programs in the area.

“We’re trying to get people to understand that ending hunger requires a community-wide response,” said Eileen DiCicco, a development assistant with Marion-Polk Food Share. “It’s also a year-round problem. We need a year-round response to it.”

Editor’s note: Jim Donnell’s and Judy Stone’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.