Today's Food Project pickup marks the four-year anniversary of a project designed to simultaneously take a bite out of hunger and build community connections. Turns out science shows the stress-free, food-collection system is also bettering the lives of its volunteers, organizers say.

Today's Food Project pickup marks the four-year anniversary of a project designed to simultaneously take a bite out of hunger and build community connections. Turns out science shows the stress-free, food-collection system is also bettering the lives of its volunteers, organizers say.

A diverse grassroots crew of Ashland volunteers — from high-school students to seniors at Mountain Meadows Retirement Community — did the first pickup in June 2009. About 3,300 pounds of food were collected from 330 households, said John Javna, one of the program's founders.

"The Food Project is a completely homegrown product of Jackson County," Javna said. "Although the concept is simple and straightforward, there was nothing like it anywhere when we started four years ago."

Little by little the project has expanded throughout Jackson County. Today there are five separate area Food Projects collecting about 55,000 pounds of food every two months that support 21 food pantries. About 5,750 families participate in collecting about 350,000 pounds of food annually, he said.

"On June 8, we will hit a total of about 860,000 pounds collected since the first pickup day four years ago," said Javna, adding the first four years have been "just a start."

In the next four years, the goal is to expand participation in Jackson County "and turn it into a permanent part of the county's infrastructure," he said.

"In Ashland, we now pick up from 23 percent of the households, which is unheard of," Javna said, adding the estimated percent of households participating countywide is about 8 percent.

"That's still very high, but we hope to double it in the next four years," Javna said. "We want food-sharing to be like curbside recycling — something many of us do regularly, as a community effort. We also hope that as other needs become apparent, this grassroots system will expand to help provide them. Like recycling, it may take a generation for it to become ingrained in our culture, but we think that with this great start, we'll get there."

The Food Project engine needs a steady supply of volunteers to run. And to run at peak efficiency, it needs volunteers who will sign on to become "neighborhood coordinators," said Karen Jones, district coordinator for the two-year-old Phoenix Food Project.

Neighborhood coordinators recruit people to become food donors and give them a reusable green bag. On the second Saturday of every even month, the coordinators pick up the bags of food and leave a replacement bag for the next time. All the food is taken directly to local food pantries.

Five families gathered 50 pounds of food in Phoenix's first pickup, Jones said. But that number has grown exponentially in the past two years, she said.

"I suspect we will pick up 3,000 pounds of food (today)," Jones said, and that number will continue to soar if more neighborhood coordinators sign up.

There are already more than 400 neighborhood coordinators in Jackson County. Amazingly, the coordinators' collection efforts average only about an hour a month, Javna said.

"They are the ones who will make this effort grow, so we're especially keen on recruiting more of them now," he said.

"Fortunately, it's a pretty easy and very rewarding job. Generally, it averages out to only about 12 to 15 hours per year — a very productive way to spend (those) hours" — for the community and for the volunteers, Javna said.

"It always blows my mind to see how dedicated the volunteers are," he said.

Scientific brain studies are providing answers to why giving can become a positive addiction. Researchers have found it can make us healthier and happier to experience generosity, Javna said.

"You may not know this, but science has proven that sharing food is good for you," he said.

A 2003 study at the University of Michigan showed that generosity "reduces stress, supports our immune systems, promotes longevity and enhances our sense of purpose," Javna said, adding scientists say that when we share, our brains release a hormone called oxytocin, which "relieves stress, improves immune function and fosters trust in human interactions, all of which contribute to a greater sense of well-being and happiness."

Numerous studies have found that volunteering not only protects our physical and mental health, but even helps us live longer. One study suggests that volunteering is "nearly as beneficial to our health as quitting smoking," Javna said.

A study by Harvard University found that people who contributed time, goods or money were "42 percent more likely to be happy than those who didn't give," he said.

"This is called 'helper's high,' " Javna said, adding other studies draw similar conclusions about compassion, trust and all forms of positive social connection.

But the health benefits aren't automatic. Helping is only healthy if it doesn't create extra stress in our lives. It must also be done deliberately and consciously, Javna said.

The Food Project offers a simple, stress-free system that's built around a single activity: Shopping, Javna said. "This is one time we can say we know that shopping is good for you."

Javna said each time a donor picks up an item for neighbors and adds it to their green bag, they reap the health benefits of caring and sharing.

"What could be simpler?" Javna said. "Too bad everything that's this good for you isn't so easy."

The Food Project's success has made Jackson County a national model for how to build a better food-collection system, Javna said.

"It's important we do the job well. Jackson County is basically the national laboratory for this. What we do resonates across the nation," Javna said.

By October, there will be 13 Food Projects in Oregon. Others are being formed in Florida, Massachusetts, Vermont, Idaho, Washington, California and Arizona. Saturday will be the first pickup day for several Food Projects across the United States, including ones in Alabama and Kentucky, he said.

"There are now 23 food projects in varying stages of development, and 10 more spin-offs that we don't monitor," Javna said, adding it is typical for project leaders from other communities to come to Jackson County to observe pickup operations firsthand.

"On June 8, folks from Grants Pass and from Sedona, Ariz., will be in Ashland and Medford taking notes on how it's done here," Javna said. "We have no doubt that within the next four years, there will be thousands of Food Projects all over America. And everything we know about how to help them succeed will come from what our volunteers do in Jackson County now."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or