Cylvia Hayes, Gov. John Kitzhaber's girlfriend, spent Monday getting a firsthand look at a local food collection program that may have statewide implications.

Cylvia Hayes, Gov. John Kitzhaber's girlfriend, spent Monday getting a firsthand look at a local food-collection program that may have statewide implications.

Hayes spent part of the morning collecting bags of donated food for the Ashland Food Project, hearing from enthusiastic volunteers and encouraging the community to continue its efforts.

"Hunger and homelessness ... are not going to be solved by a guy swooping in on a white horse," Hayes said, adding the project was an "incredible model of self-governance."

The Ashland Food Project, which began in 2008, collected 56 tons for the Ashland Emergency Food Bank last year. One out of every four Ashland households is now providing donations, said founder John Javna. The program this year expanded to Talent and Medford.

During the last pickup on Saturday, the food projects combined brought in 18.5 tons of food for local nonprofits.

At the Ashland food bank Monday morning, Paul Giancarlo told Hayes the easy-to-join, easy-to-participate, every-other-month food-collection system has solved his city's problem of seasonal food shortages. Prior to the Food Project, shelves were relatively easy to fill during the holidays, but they often sat empty during the summer months and at other times, he said.

After initial hesitancy to knock on doors and ask for donations, Giancarlo said he began to hear a chorus of "Thank you" comments when the neighborhood coordinators returned to pick up the food.

"We got to the point where we realized we are actually offering something," Giancarlo said.

Giancarlo spoke of one special — and final — pickup. An Ashland man had died prior to pickup day. But when the coordinator went to his home, someone at the house made sure the man's green bag of food was collected.

"He prepared the bag before he died," Giancarlo said.

Hayes said Giancarlo's story demonstrates both humanity and community are thriving, even as Oregon faces tough times. Citing 50 percent of Oregon school-aged children qualify for nutritional aid and one in five families face hunger issues, Hayes said, "We don't think that we're one of the hungriest states. But we are."

Witnessing the collection process helped Hayes see how efficiently and effectively the project works, she said.

"It's an elevated, humanitarian newspaper route," Hayes said, promising to showcase the work of the Rogue Valley's food projects on her website and in her speeches across the state.

On Saturday, 145 people brought in an estimated 19,000 pounds of food collected from 2,200 homes to the food bank in Ashland. In Talent and Phoenix, 28 coordinators picked up 3,538 pounds from 385 contributors.

On Monday afternoon, Hayes met with organizers of the Medford Food Project, where some 8,200 pounds of food were gathered during its first pickup in February. After one month of organizing volunteers, distribution agencies and canvassing neighborhoods, Javna said Medford produced as much as Ashland had after six months.

Drawn from divergent corners of Medford and Jacksonville, more than 100 neighborhood coordinators collected 14,400 pounds of food Saturday for 20 local nonprofit groups, Javna said. Neighborhood coordinators are key to the success of the Food Projects, Javna said.

Bags are collected the second Saturday of even-numbered months. The next collection date is June 11, Javna said.

Sanne Specht is a reporter with the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.