On January 26, 2009, a dozen Ashlanders met to discuss a new way of supporting the Ashland Emergency Food Bank. The economy had crashed four months earlier, and the number of people in Ashland who needed emergency provisions had jumped dramatically. The food bank was having a hard time keeping up; they needed more food.
The group proposed to go door-to-door in Ashland, and recruit people to become regular food donors. But they weren’t sure how to start. So they went online to research how other communities handled it … and were astonished to find that — other than a few annual collection programs put on by Boy Scouts and the Post Office — no one seemed to be doing it anywhere. They’d come up with a genuinely original idea.
A few days later, the group chose a name — the Ashland Food Project (AFP) — and a slogan: “You want to help. We want to make it easy.” Then, over the next five months, they developed a plan: Each volunteer would knock on doors in their own neighborhood and sign people up. Then every two months, on the second Saturday of each even month, these “Neighborhood Coordinators” would pick up a bag of food from each donor and take it to the Ashland Emergency Food Bank. That’s all there was to it.
On June 20, 2009, neighborhood coordinators went out for the first time to pick up food. They collected about 3,600 pounds — proving the idea really worked. A month later, the Food Project introduced a new feature: They gave each donor a reusable green bag in which to store food. As a result, the second pick-up was even more successful. They brought in over 8,000 pounds; and that’s how the AFP began.
Now, five years later, the Ashland Food Project’s signature green bags are a familiar sight. About 24 percent of Ashland households — more than 2,250 of them — donate around 20,000 pounds of food every two months. The AFP is the largest volunteer organization in the town’s history, and most important, the AFP’s dedicated volunteers have helped make the Ashland Emergency Food Bank a thriving, visible part of the community.
"I can’t imagine life without the Food Project,” says Pam Marsh, the Food Bank’s director. “The advent of the magic green bags five years ago fundamentally altered the business model of our food bank. Knowing we will receive a predictable flow of goods every other month enables us to use our small cash reserves to carefully fill in the gaps between collections. In practice, that means that our clients can get food year-round, not just holidays. We’re very grateful.”
The AFP is proud to have helped strengthen our community in other ways. For example, many families regularly buy or collect food together, making it both a family activity and a way to teach children the value of helping others. Scores of high school students have learned about the issue of hunger by a helping to sort and shelve the food collected by the AFP. And because the AFP is a neighborhood-based food collection system, it has helped bring neighbors together.
The experience of Eliza Kauder, a long-time neighborhood coordinator, is typical: “Working with the Ashland Food Project for the past four years has given me a great opportunity to meet and appreciate my neighbors,” she says. “I didn’t know most of them at first. But now that I do, I’m not just picking up food — I have a personal relationship with the people in the 20-plus households on my route. Even though they’re the ones donating the food, they’re so glad to help that they often thank ME for doing this. It's wonderful!”
The AFP has impacted other communities. Ashland’s success inspired the group’s founders to “export” the system. There are now seven Food Projects in Jackson County, and 35 more from California to Vermont. But here at home, there are still challenges. The food bank is hoping the AFP will eventually find a way to collect an additional 5,000 pounds every two months. That’s a lot of food, but we know we can do it — with your help. Join us! Get your green bag. To sign up or learn more, please go to www.AshlandFoodproject.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-488-6976.
John Javna is co-founder of the Ashland Food Project, and executive director of the Neighborhood Food Project.