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Planting Seeds of Change in Ontario

Known as the “Four Rivers” area, Ontario is settled on the traditional homelands of the Nüümü (Northern Paiute) people and is a central point that connects the Snake, Malheur, Owyhee and Payette Rivers. Those waterways have been flowing since time immemorial serving as a life source for the Nüümü people and continue to be the center of tribal sovereignty advocacy efforts for tribal communities in the Northwest area. Due to damming along the Snake River and broken treaty rights, the Salmon is in danger of going extinct. Our foodways and waterways have always been intertwined and are the reason why community building and organizing are so important to the Ontario community.

Ontario organizer Eddie Melendrez, didn’t always think he would be a food justice advocate, yet for over 10 years he has been living in the Four Rivers region, creating community-centered change to make Ontario a better place for all. Melendrez begancraving change in Ontario while working with youth in the juvenile justice system in 2009 where he first saw the threads of systemic racism.

I built relationships with the youth and they told me about the lack of resources and lack of access they experienced. I would listen and I would ask them, "What are you going to do about it and how are you going to get involved and be a part of the solution and change?

Eddie Melendrez

Melendrez has been a bridge in his community and consistently connects folks of all backgrounds living in Malheur and Harney counties.

“I hope that we invest in our community now, and that we are in a better place where folks are more caring and understanding, and that we can rise out of poverty. I dream of having a community where the youth have everything they need to succeed and that we become a community that is understanding and welcoming to all people who come to this area… I hope that we become a community that gives back to the next generation,” Melendrez said.

Melendrez is an Ontario city council member, a boxing mentor, an organizer with Oregon Food Bank, an ‘artivist’, husband, father and son. His dream for his community is beginning to transform and blossom into a new reality. He aims to “get the people with lived experience in leadership positions so we can have a seat at the table to make our own decisions and share our perspectives. A lot of times those who have the power to make decisions are folks who are disconnected from those of us with lived experience.”

And he’s doing just that.

Ontario has several other food justice advocates who work to end the root causes of hunger and change the living conditions for all people living in Malheur and Harney counties.

Diana Herrera, a long-time resident of Ontario, has been a food systems ambassador for Oregon Food Bank since late 2023. Often, she offers food assistance referrals to families who can’t access food banks due to time and transportation constraints. Herrera primarily works as an interpreter and translator for the growing Latino community in Malheur County and its surrounding areas. In 2022 the Latino community represented 47% of Malheur County's population.

My vision is big, real big for the Latino community here in Malheur County and we want to be able to meet all of the Latino community's needs so that they can maintain their traditions and educate the youth in the learning of their ancestor’s traditions. Food justice to me means reaching out to the folks who are unable to make it to the food banks and provide resources to people where they can receive food. We want to teach the Latino community that the food bank and food pantries are there to support them and their families.

Diana Herrera

For community organizer, Hussien Aldelay, his joy and motivation is giving back to the community. “When I first came to Ontario, I needed help a lot and didn’t get the help that I needed. Once I got connected with Eddie [Melendrez], I was able to support others in my community who needed help similar to me,” Aldelay said.

As a food justice organizer, Hussien advocates for ending the root causes of hunger through phone banking with Oregon Food Bank, attending advocacy workshops and events, and supporting direct food distribution to local food pantries.

“Organizing around food is important to me because that’s what keeps people breathing and alive. We do this work because it’s the right thing to do. When people ask for help, we have to see what they need,” Aldelay said.

Melendrez, Herrera and Aldelay are not the only folks in their neighborhoods working to address food insecurity. There is a growing effort of community-led solutions addressing all of the intersections of hunger in Ontario through community conversations.

In February, folks from Ontario and Vale gathered at the Four Rivers Cultural Center and Museum to attend a movement-building workshop facilitated by Eddie Melendrez and Oregon Food Bank Southeast Oregon Regional Manager, Lindsay Grosvenor. Over 50 people attended to share the changes they want to see in their communities and what types of solutions they can create together. Some issues of importance were around affordable housing, reproductive justice, food insecurity and supporting youth. Folks left the workshop with a deeper understanding of how to cultivate community-centered change through movements.

“I hope to plant that seed in the youth and community members I work with to eventually become leaders in the community to be someone who is caring and with a different perspective, a change for the better and to have a seat at the table. I want the state to see us and know we are here. We need folks to show up for us on this side of the state and take the time to understand our perspectives. I want to be a part of the solution,” Melendrez said.

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