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Portland Business Journal: A Bountiful Harvest

January 8, 2010
Wendy Culverwell
Hunger , OFB General

Cuts in federal program could push nonprofit back into crisis mode

The Oregon Food Bank had a year most businesses would kill for: In the 12 months that ended June 30, revenue grew 16.5 percent and it added 37 distribution points and 20 percent more customers, roughly half of them first-timers.

But the stunning growth is an unhappy reminder that hunger is a growing problem in Oregon, said Rachel Bristol, executive director.

Exacerbated by rising unemployment and a frayed safety net, growing need for food assistance has put Oregon in the unenviable position of having the nation’s second-highest hunger rate, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

“It’s the last thing you would hope for in this business,” said Bristol, who anticipates food assistance demand won’t abate anytime soon.

The Oregon Food Bank is the heart of a statewide network of 935 food banks and pantries.

Locally, it added 37 new distribution points in the Portland area between 2008 and 2009, bringing the total in the four-county region to 380 at mid-year.

It served the nearly 1 million Oregonians who ate out of emergency food boxes, a 20 percent increase in the number of people served over the prior year.

Revenue and expenses grew 16.5 percent, to $52.5 million and $49 million, respectively.

To keep up, the food bank spent reserves to keep the food flowing and worked with Congress to boost waning supplies available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s commodities program.

It will soon be in crisis mode again since the commodities are nearly exhausted and it will take more action from Congress to replenish them.

The work load has been crushing, but Bristol said the Oregon Food Bank added no new paid staff in the past year to keep overhead costs in line.

“We just have the most wonderful, dedicated employees on earth. They have just been running full tilt.”

The tight lid on expenses helps affiliated food banks keep up with increasing demand, said Tracy Klein, president of Angels of God, a Vancouver, Wash.-based food bank associated with New Life Friends Church.

Most of the food served by Angels of God is provided by the Oregon Food Bank.

The Oregon Food Bank is one of the best known agencies serving needy families and is often the first stop for clients who need other assistance, such as money to avoid evictions or having utilities shut off.

“No one organization can do it alone. The food bank is very good at getting their message out,” said Marc Levy, president and CEO of the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette.

A key initiative launched in 2009 will help the food bank operate more efficiently in coming years.

The food bank paid $3 million for a former apparel warehouse in Beaverton and committed to opening a new facility there to serve its fast-growing client base in Washington County.

As of December, it has raised $3.2 million of the $8.5 million it needs to repay the loan and to transform the 36,000-square-foot building into an operations and outreach center.

The building, referred to as “Oregon Food Bank West,” will allow it to glean an additional 1.5 million pounds of perishable food per year from grocers such as Albertsons, Fred Meyer, Walmart and QFC.

It’ll also allow the food bank and its volunteers to process more raw food provided by Farmers Ending Hunger, an agricultural effort to provide fresh items to the food bank and an increasingly important source of food.

That makes it a solid long-term investment in meeting future needs but puts the food bank in the awkward position of raising capital in a recession.

The new facility is so critical to the food bank’s future that Bristol said she’s asked supporters who usually donate to support operations to earmark their contributions to support it.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we can increase the momentum on that capital campaign,” Bristol said.

While demand has climbed, the supply chain has diminished, which increases the food bank’s dependence on food it buys itself, food it gleans from grocers and food donated by farmers.

The USDA commodity program has been in decline for years while the Oregon food processing industry has contracted in a wave of consolidations and closures. Bristol said at least 15 processors that once donated to the food bank are gone, including a Tualatin peanut butter maker, a Salem soup maker and a Hillsboro chili maker.

“More and more we’re forced to do the higher cost processing of food direct from the farmer,” she said.

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