Hunger, Help, Hope

Columbia Gorge Food Bank Expands to Feed Increasing Need

By Drew Myron

Scott Radford manages the food movement at Columbia Gorge Food Bank. Photo by Drew Myron

Responding to a dramatic increase in need, Columbia Gorge Food Bank has initiated a $3 million construction project that will more than triple its headquarters in The Dalles.

A branch of the Oregon Food Bank, the Columbia Gorge Food Bank supports more than 30 hunger relief efforts in Wasco, Sherman, and Hood River counties.

CGFB secures and manages donations from government food commodities, grocery stores, and local farmers, then distributes the food to a network of community partners and pantries throughout the region.

In the past two years, CGFB doubled distribution of food, doubled the number of food partners, and formed new food pantries to help feed folks in rural areas.

The organization works with churches, schools, shelters, senior meal sites, and dozens of social service programs.

CGFB and its partners provide food to more than 5,000 people each month.

Demand for food has doubled in Oregon and shows no signs of slowing, says Sharon Thornberry, manager of the food bank.

“Rent is going up, food and inflation is up, gas is up, supply chain issues are causing problems, and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits are set to expire,” she says. “We are seeing a lot of need. There are a lot of stresses, and one thing can tip the scale.”

CGFB serves as the main connector for food in the Gorge. The nonprofit employs seven people and has 45 volunteers.

“When I first came here, this was a very underserved area,” Sharon says. “There were no food pantries in south Wasco County, and the one in Sherman County was open one day a month. There were a lot of people who did without. So, we added more food pantries to rural areas. And then the pandemic put even more pressure, and we added more.”

With the help of volunteers, Columbia Gorge Food Bank distributed 2.2 million pounds of food in 2021 to people in three local counties. The number of people in need continues to grow. Photo courtesy of CGFB

A food bank is typically a large storage and distribution center, while a food pantry is a smaller community site arranged as a shopping experience where individuals choose their items.

Each pantry offers kitchen staples— such as beans, rice, milk, eggs, and cheese—and a variety of canned goods and fresh produce. All food is provided for free. There are no income or residency requirements.

“We’ve always been able to do a lot with a little,” Sharon says. “For two years, we worked out of borrowed docks and parking lots.”

Sharon has spent 35 years—nearly half her life—working on food security systems. Twenty-three of those years have been with Oregon Food Bank.

In 2017, CGFB secured a lease on its current home—a 2,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution space—then quickly outgrew the space.

Expansion plans call for moving across the street to a 10,000-square-foot warehouse at 3525 Crates Way, in an industrial park along the Columbia River. The purchase of the warehouse was made possible by an anonymous $1 million donation that also covered design and renovation plans.

The new headquarters will include space for community gatherings, a demonstration kitchen for cooking classes, a 1,300-square-foot cooler that can hold an entire truckload of produce, and a recessed exterior loading dock.

CGFB has doubled distribution and partnerships and also partnered with the Oregon Health Authority to distribute 800 food boxes weekly during the pandemic. In addition, food pantries were established in Wamic and Maupin. They still bustle with folks trying to stretch their budgets.

Sharon Thornberry, manager of Columbia Gorge Food Bank, stands at the organization’s new site: a 10,000-square foot warehouse made possible by an anonymous $1 million donation and a $50,000 contribution from Google. Photo by Drew Myron

Oregon is not alone in its increased need. Approximately one in five people received assistance from a food bank, food pantry or a similar program in 2020, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization. The organization estimates at least 60 million people turned to food banks, food pantries, and other food assistance amid the health and economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

“Last year, we distributed over 2.2 million pounds of food and served over 5,000 people per month across Hood River, Wasco and Sherman counties,” says Silvan Shawe, CGFB’s community philanthropy manager. “We are only seeing the need increase. This new warehouse will allow us to continue to expand our work to support more rural communities, Native and farmworker families, as well as be a local community hub for food systems and resilience work.”

The expansion will allow for partnership with local campaigns, such as the Backpack Program, a free service providing 150 food bags to students each week; and Windy River Gleaners, a volunteer nonprofit organization that will move its weekly operations to the new facility.

Established in 1984, Windy River Gleaners provides food to more than 100 families weekly. After operating in a variety of temporary locations, the group will have a permanent home with parking, air conditioning, and heat.

“It was so cold this winter,” says Virginia McKay, who has volunteered with the group since it began. “A couple of times we had to close. We have a lot of older people, and we can’t have them outside waiting in the cold.”

CGFB is also partnering with The Dalles Art Center and Columbia Center for the Arts to incorporate community art projects into the headquarters. The new facility will be “more welcoming and inviting, with a family atmosphere,” Silvan says.

Local community support is essential to success, she says, pointing to the donor who contributed the money to buy the building and Google, which has contributed $50,000 to the renovation effort expected to be complete by late 2022.

“This will allow us to serve more people and welcome more people,” Sharon says. “This will really allow us to be a community food center for the Gorge.”