Someone You Know is Hungry

Columbia Gorge Food Bank Works to Meet Widespread Food Insecurity in Wasco County

By Kathy Ursprung

Your child’s playground friend, the elderly person sitting next to you in church, the clerk at your favorite store. Someone you know is affected by food insecurity.

“We serve about 3,500 people a month through the various pantry sites,” says Sharon Thornberry, director of the Columbia Gorge Food Bank.

Sharon, food bank employees, and their community support team are expanding the capacity of local programs to help people in Wasco, Sherman, and Hood River counties.

Over time, they hope to establish the Columbia Gorge Food Bank as its own non-profit

Members of the junior board of the Reser Foundation assembled 200 homeless outreach bags for the Columbia Gorge Food Bank.

organization. Right now, they operate under the Oregon Food Bank.

“The Oregon Food Bank feels like it can support the building of a local warehouse and get the infrastructure put in place, then work with a local group to form a nonprofit to take this on long term,” Sharon says.

She says there was no program growth for 30 years.

“We needed to be able to increase the capacity of the regional food bank to really serve all three counties and provide adequate opportunity for people in the rural communities to be food secure,” Sharon says.

There are many reasons people in the area have faced food insecurity during those 30 years. One was the closure of the aluminum plant.

“I think the big reason today for programs to grow is because the cost of living does not match the salaries that people are getting,” Sharon says. “For example, Wasco County’s median cost of living is over $53,000 per year.”

A household of two people working minimum wage jobs falls short of that by about $10,000. A shortage of housing units for the incoming population drives the cost of housing higher.

“You have both young workers and an increasing amount of dependence on tourism,” Sharon says. “That’s great for the community, but those are not living-wage jobs.”

People often assume the people who need food assistance are irresponsible, Sharon says, noting that’s not true.

“Do the math,” she says. “The math shows people are not making enough to get by.”

Sharon uses herself as an example.

“I’m not going to be the poorest senior around here,” she says. “I’d like to stay here and retire here, but I don’t know if I’m going to be able to.”

Sharon says the food bank is an essential place to bring donations. Because it is connected with local pantries, the food bank can direct donations where they are most needed.

Sharon Thornberry, rural communities liaison for the Oregon Food Bank, is director of the Columbia Gorge Food Bank.

Donations don’t have to be food.

“Cash is great,” Sharon says. “Right now, the Oregon Food Bank and statewide donations are carrying most of the load for costs here. We need to build a base of local donors that will support this local food bank.”

The Columbia Gorge Food Bank is housed in a 2,000-square-foot warehouse at the Port of The Dalles. It is the smallest food bank ware- house in the state. Sharon hopes to change that within the next two to three years.

“We easily could use 6,000 to 9,000 square feet, especially to be able to take in local donations of produce that can be shared, first locally, then sometimes statewide and nation- ally across the region,” she says.

For example, surplus local pears beyond what folks in the Gorge can eat can be shared elsewhere in Oregon, or even in other states, such as Arizona. In return, folks in Arizona can share produce in non-growing seasons in the Gorge.

The food that comes to the Columbia Gorge Food Bank is distributed through a network of food pantries. New pantries have been established in Rufus, Cascade Locks, Parkdale and at the Wahtonka School in The Dalles.

“We’re also hoping to have a pantry in Maupin,” Sharon says.

The Food Bank’s one direct-service program is the Gorge Homeless Outreach, which works with volunteers to provide bags of nonperishable food to people on the streets. The same group takes produce, bread, water and other essentials to the Lone Pine Native American fishing site.

In addition to daily needs, the Columbia Gorge Food Bank also responds to disasters. In the three years Sharon has served, the region has experienced an immobilizing winter storm and the massive Eagle Creek Fire. In both cases, people were cut off from their food sources. The Food Bank supported food pantries by delivering food to affected people. This past summer, they supported the Salvation Army with food and snacks for firefighters.

Donations to the Columbia Gorge Food Bank typically end up at food pantries in Wasco, Sherman and Hood River counties. Photo courtesy of Sharon Thornberry

“That’s another reason the community needs a sizable warehouse in the right place,” Sharon says. “Then we can act as a disaster depot with the right equipment and staff to move food in those situations. Food bankers are trained to do that.”

The Everyone Loves a Firefighter Drive is the largest food drive this season. It benefits the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul. Other upcoming drives—most notably, one at Safeway—will benefit the food bank. The food bank’s new Americorps volunteer will help coordinate those and similar efforts.

Food banks also support community-building around food systems and help people develop their own solutions. In late September, for example, the food bank distributed a pallet of seeds to encourage people to grow their own food.

“We’re hoping to start a program called Seed to Supper to teach low-income people how to raise and utilize their own produce,” Sharon says.

For more information about the Columbia Gorge Food Bank or how to donate, contact at Sharon Thornberry Email or call (541) 609-8903.