John Javna, who co-founded the Ashland Food Project with Paul Giancarlo, has been building participation since before the group's first food pickup in June 2009.

The Ashland Emergency Food Bank saw a 25 percent increase in people coming in for food in January over the same month in 2009.

In the past that might have made for a tight February, typically not a high point in the year for food donations. But a new regular stream of food from the growing organization Ashland Food Project has helped level out the lows.

"This has changed our world," said Susan Harris, food bank board president. "It's allowed us to have full shelves, especially at this time of year."

John Javna, who co-founded the Ashland Food Project with Paul Giancarlo, has been building participation since before the group's first food pickup in June 2009.

He's also sensitive to the value of regular food supplies in the early months of the year.

"This is the time of year it becomes very valuable to do what we're doing," Javna said. "At Christmas time we always get donations (through various holiday food drives). This is February. If we can do the same thing now, then we've shown the food project really works."

Harris was chosen as board president following the departure of longtime food bank leader Ann Marie Hutson, who stepped away from those duties after the recent death of her husband.

Harris credits the strong system put in place by Hutson and the help of fellow board members and numerous volunteers for making a successful transition in board leadership.

"I'm just one of 14 members of the board," Harris said. "Any one of us could have stepped in."

Harris also made note of the Ashland Food Project as a bright spot on the local food collection scene.

The project utilizes a growing list of households in Ashland who have volunteered to give food on a regular basis. At present there are about 1,500 scattered throughout the city.

Once every two months, on the second Saturday of the month, neighborhood leaders with the Ashland Food Project fan out and collect food set out by participants on their front porches in special green bags collected just for this purpose.

"When we pick up food, it's not part of a drive," Javna said. "It's part of this whole infrastructure we've built. It's not a traditional way of collecting food. The problem in the past has been the collection of food. People who want to give food haven't had an easy way to do it. All we're doing is providing a bridge."

The most recent pickup was on Saturday, and Javna estimates by the time everything is counted, weighed and placed on food bank shelves, as much as 15,000 pounds of food will have been collected. Not an unreasonable estimate, as the numbers have been trending upward. June saw 3,800 pounds, August 7,100 pounds and each month increased until 14,000 pounds of food came through in December.

"Saturday is probably the biggest food collection Ashland has ever had," Javna said.

The next Ashland Food Project pickup is scheduled for April 10.

The project's neighborhood-centered grassroots model has proven so successful that other communities are looking to use it as a template of food collection in their towns.

Groups in Port Orchard and Olympia, Wash., already have started work on creating similar operations in their communities. Olympia's fledgling food gatherers even went as far as sending a representative down to Ashland on Saturday to work with the collection effort and get hands-on experience on how the system works.

"This is, as far as we know, a unique program in the U.S.," Javna said. "From the outset, we've intended to hand it off to other communities. Our first experiment in that direction was to take it to Talent."

The Talent group has set up its own organization, and had its first pickup in December. About 60 households are signed up in Talent, according to Javna.

The visitor from Olympia worked side-by-side Saturday with the volunteers at the food bank and the growing number of students from Ashland High School who are pitching in.

"Working with (AHS Principal) Jeff Schlecht, we've developed a relationship that enables the kids to get their community service hours by coming to the food bank to receive, sort and stock the food on collection day," Javna said. "As you might imagine, this is a huge job when you've got 14,000 pounds of food coming in, but it all gets done in one day."

About 50 students helped during the December collection.

"Food banks traditionally have a tough time interesting younger people in volunteering there," Javna said.

For information on the project, call 541-488-6976 or e-mail foodproject@opendoor.com. The Ashland Emergency Food Bank is open 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and the first Saturday of each month at 2200 Ashland St. near Shop'n Kart. For information, call 541-488-9544 or see the Web site AshlandFoodBank.org.

Reach reporter and editor Myles Murphy at 482-3456 ext. 222 or mmurphy@dailytidings.com.