Volunteers at Keizer Community Food Bank prepare to serve the area’s hungry the afternoon of Monday, June 29.
If it weren’t for a federal program making certain fresh produce and dairy products were getting to those in need, Jim Johnson is fairly certain the Keizer Community Food Bank (KCFB) would have been overwhelmed weeks ago.
“The whole supply chain has been disrupted and most of what is on our shelves right now is food we purchased at Grocery Outlet,” said Johnson, KCFB manager. “It’s very frustrating.”
In less straining times, the Oregon Food Bank would send a weekly list of available items to community food banks like KCFB, it would include staples like peanut butter, pasta, canned meats and vegetables, frozen meats and other items. Johnson would decide which items were needed and a purchase would be arranged through Marion Polk Food Share, the regional partner to the Oregon Food Bank. For the past few weeks, the only items that have been on the list are cardboard boxes and plastic bags.
The only item KCFB has in surplus at the moment is butter, a freezer full of it. The supply of canned beans is holding steady, but the amount on-hand is far from reassuring given how little of anything else is available.
“The tuna, tomato paste, tomato sauces, cold cereal, peanut butter and canned vegetables are almost non-existent unless we buy them off the shelf,” Johnson said.
Since mid-March, the need for food assistance increased by an average of 50 percent over the same time period last year.
“To meet this increased need, Marion Polk Food Share has distributed an unprecedented amount of food – 3.73 million pounds from April to June of 2020, compared to 2.36 million pounds in the same time period last year. That’s an increase of 58 percent,” said Julie Hambuchen, spokesperson for Marion Polk Food Share.
That total includes an additional 29,000 pounds of food delivered to KCFB, and 21,000 pounds delivered to a pop-up distribution site at Keizer Elementary School.
While some of the demand has eased on KCFB as a result of a federal program that has made food boxes available throughout the region – known as Farm to Family – there was a line forming for food boxes a full hour before the food bank opened on Monday, June 29.
Refrigerators once filled to bursting at the Keizer Community Food Bank are mostly barren as a result of hammering demand and slow resupply.
“We’ll probably see about two dozen [families/cars] tonight, a few weeks ago it was 35 to 45 on Mondays. On Thursdays, we’ll see 45 or 50,” Johnson said.
Fortunately, KCFB had a large shipment of bread a week ago and enough left over to see them through Monday’s service.
“We haven’t had any new bread come in since last week,” Johnson said.
KCFB has also received a share of the Farm to Family boxes, which include either fresh produce or dairy products, thanks to a partnership with St. Edward Catholic Church. Those also dissipate quickly.
Walter E. Nelson Co., a Portland-based janitorial supply company, is providing a supply of toilet paper for KCFB to purchase and matches it with a donation of sanitary wipes.
Johnson is incredibly thankful for the support already given, but worry is ever-present.
“Last fall, we had so much available, we had to ask MPFS to hold off sending us some things. We didn’t have space to store it,” he said. “It’s been a complete 180 from there.”
While photos across the country have depicted miles-long line-ups for food bank services, one of the rarely-mentioned realities is that food banks aren’t intended to be the sole supply of food for families in need. Food boxes are meant to be supplements to bolster and help stretch whatever groceries the family can afford for themselves. That’s why when KCFB received a nearly half-ton donation of dog food from Copper Creek Mercantile it was broken up into two-pound bags to make it last longer and serve more families.
It’s unknown how many are relying solely on food banks and the Farm to Family program for all their food needs.
“We used to keep track of everybody and ask them to come back only once a month. Since the pandemic started, we’ve told them to come back when they are hungry,” Johnson said.
While COVID-19 has stretched the limits of the food banks capabilities, it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. Amid the chaos, Johnson and his team of volunteers figured out how to streamline curbside service and they can move 50 or more cars through in a couple of hours with only 10 able bodies.
“As much as we’d love to have more volunteers, we’re able to do what needs to be done with a small group and that’s good,” Johnson said.
Volunteers unpack donations in preparation for serving the community’s residents in need.
Rather than inviting food bank clients into Faith Lutheran Church to “shop” for what they need, volunteers meet clients at their car with a menu printed in English, Spanish and Russian. Clients circle the items they need and volunteers return in a few minutes with food ready to be loaded into a car.
“Everything has changed, but we’ve not had any complaints,” Johnson said.
Another large population KCFB serves are Keizer’s homeless people.
“We just tell them to come by and tell us what they need and can carry,” Johnson said.
Throughout the pandemic, the Keizer Elks and Salem-based Polyform, Inc., have provided strong financial support. There are also several local businesses hosting food barrels that directly support KCFB. Uptown Music offer a $5 gift card in exchange for food donations; Tony’s Kingdom of Comics provides free comics in exchange for food donations; The Rec (formerly Town & Country Lanes) is hosting a food barrel sponsored by the Southeast Keizer Neighborhood Association; Copper Creek Mercantile is hosting a food barrel sponsored by the West Keizer Neighborhood Association; and Willamette Valley Bank on River Road is also hosting a food barrel.
As always, financial contributions can be stretched even further. Donate online at tinyurl.com/kcfb20.