Food Pantries Critical to Area Families

Five sites offer help feeding those in need

By Craig Reed

Many people suffer a shortage of a key necessity to life: food.

The reasons might be a disability, old age, homelessness, no job or a low-paying job, mental health issues, multiple family members under the same roof, or something else.

To address this community shortage, food pantries were established, some as many as 40 years ago. A few of the pantries have a paid manager, but most are organized and operated by groups of dedicated volunteers.

Five food pantries serve the Lane Electric Cooperative service area. All receive most of their food from Food for Lane County, the regional distributor of food from the Oregon Food Bank.

Depending on the location, pantries also receive food from grocery stores such as Walmart, Safeway, Grocery Outlet, and Ray’s. Other food sources include local farmers and backyard gardeners who donate surplus produce, and food drives by various groups and the pantry itself. Financial donations from individuals and businesses and grants bring in money to buy additional food.

Following is a summary of each of the five area pantries.

Cottage Grove Food Pantry

Volunteers at the Cottage Grove Food Pantry support 2,000 families annually.

Part of the Community Sharing Program, this pantry that provides basic needs such as food, housing, and energy assistance. The bulk of the services is food.

Mike Fleck, the program’s executive director for the past 10 years, says the food pantry annually provides for an average of 2,000 families, totaling about 5,000 individuals. Under normal circumstances, the pantry provides a shopping-style experience, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, boxes are filled with food items and given to those in need.

About 70 volunteers sort incoming food, stock shelves, or fill boxes. They average more than 10,000 hours of work a year.

Distribution times are Mondays, 1:30 to 6 p.m., and Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

“We serve folks from all across the spectrum,” Mike says. “They are welcomed to come in anytime we’re open. Anybody who needs help, please come in. We have lots of food.”

Information: (541) 942-2176

Lowell Food Pantry

Ron and Joan Ballenger of the Lowell Pantry fill a food box.

Greg Rundo, a college student doing a report on feeding the hungry, started this pantry in 2001. He figured the best way to study the hunger issue was to be involved.

The Lowell area didn’t have a pantry at the time, so Greg organized one. After he completed his report, he left the pantry, but it was well-established enough that volunteers kept it going.

Shawn Brady has been manager for 19 years. Fourteen volunteers help with the pantry’s operation, which is based out of Lowell Christian Church.

Pantry days are the first and third Tuesdays of each month. Bread is available on the second and fourth Tuesdays.

The pantry provides food for 40 to 45 families on pantry days and five to 15 families on bread days. Emergency food boxes can be requested on non-pantry days.

Pantry volunteers also put together food boxes for Christmas, and boxes for Thanksgiving are available when requested in advance.

“We do this to help our community,” Shawn says.

Information: (541) 912-1538

McKenzie River Food Pantry

Sister John Backenstos moved to the McKenzie River area and started this food pantry in 1981. Eight families benefited the first year.

Since then, as the area’s population has slowly grown, so has the number of families served. Sue O’Brien, pantry manager for the past 15 years, says 60 to 80 families come for food on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month. At Christmas, the pantry provides for 135 to 150 families, Sue says.

“This pantry is essential to the Blue River, Upper McKenzie area because there is a food desert in this area,” Sue says. “It’s 37 miles to the nearest grocery store and 42 miles to the nearest reasonably priced grocery store. If we weren’t open on a regular basis, many of our people up here would be very short on food or starving.”

Sue says almost all 175 students in the McKenzie School District are on free or reduced lunch.

“That says many children in the area are poverty-stricken,” she says. “This pantry is extremely important to the area.”

The pantry gives out enough food each time for three meals a day for three days per person. Information is also provided to teach people how to make more efficient use of the food they receive.

The pantry, which operates out of McKenzie High School, shut down for several weeks during the Holiday Farm Fire when Sue and many other volunteers had to evacuate. As soon as the volunteers were able to return, the pantry reopened. About 15 volunteers help each month.

At Christmastime, the pantry also collects toys and distributes those with food to families with children.

Information: (541) 570-5426

Love Project

Volunteer Susan Regnerus of the Love Project works in the food pantry.

Based in Veneta, this food pantry operates within the Mid Lane Cares program. It serves the 475 square miles within the Fern Ridge School District, which includes the communities of Veneta, Crow, Noti, Elmira, and Lorane.

“We, as the food pantry, are here to serve people of the communities,” says Pat Coy, chair of the Mid Lane Cares board, which oversees Love Project. “We work very hard as volunteers to provide for the food insecurities of people in our service area. We try to be as generous as we can, to help as many as we possibly can. We’re here to feed people. We take that responsibility very seriously.”

The pantry at the Fern Ridge Service Center is open 10 to 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 to 2 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; and 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pantry offered a shopping experience, but for the last several months a drive-thru system with food boxes has been employed.

Pat estimates the pantry has served 800 to 1,000 people in recent months.

Fifteen to 20 volunteers work at the pantry each month, contributing 500 to 600 hours a month.

“We’re here to feed people and to help people,” Pat says. “We live in small communities, but we try to have a big heart in serving as many people as we possibly can.”

Information: (541) 935-4555 or online at the Midlane Cares website.

Upper Willamette Community Food Box

At least 60 families a week receive food from this pantry, says Food Box Manager Alissa Gomez.

The pantry at the Willamette Activities Center in Oakridge is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Wednesdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Boxes and bags of food are distributed.

Eight volunteers work on Mondays when food arrives at the center and six volunteers work each of the three distribution days.

“I do this because I enjoy helping people,” Alissa says. “It brings a smile to my face knowing we’re helping those in need. I’m glad we’re here to help those people.”

Information: (541) 782-2192

Three locations in the Lane Electric service area serve senior meals: the Nazarene Church in Oakridge; Fern Ridge Service Center in Veneta; and Riverview Terrace in Cottage Grove. The operations and schedules have been altered by COVID-19.