On most Mondays, Stephanie Labrash might be found writing music or spending time with her father. But at noon on one or two Mondays a month, she visits the ACCESS food pantry in a back room of First Christian Church in east Medford.
Labrash has visited the pantry for about two years, so she knows to arrive on time. She takes a number and sits in the church's cavernous back sanctuary, greeting familiar faces and becoming acquainted with new ones. When her number is called, she enters the narrow route marked between the pantry's shelves, stacked with cans of tuna and loaves of bread and a colorful panoply of fruits and vegetables.
She is one of 26,000 people served through ACCESS food services across the Rogue Valley. These are people experiencing "food insecurity," which ranges from an inability to obtain food to limited accessibility to only low-quality foods.
Labrash and her father fall into the second category. She comes to the ACCESS pantry to get foods that are not just temporarily satisfying, but which also contribute to their long-term health — foods they couldn't afford otherwise.
"It makes it less stressful for staples," Labrash says. "I feel more secure about my future coming here."
Relieving food-related stress while boosting health is part of ACCESS's goal. But those foods don't wind up on the shelves or in Labrash's cart on their own, which is why the organization organizes more pointed efforts to bring in resources, such as the organization's annual Food for Hope drive, the nonprofit’s largest food drive of the year.
This year's drive kicks today. Grocery bags will be stuffed into the Mail Tribune and Ashland Daily Tidings on various days this week and next. Readers can stuff them with food between now and Dec. 31, and take them to one of several drop sites around the county, including fire stations, Umpqua Bank branches, Sherm’s Thunderbird, Food 4 Less and several churches.
ACCESS Director Phillip Yates says the organization began honing its focus on providing healthful foods in the early 2000s, when it began to realize the interrelationships between poor health and poverty. Research has shown that lower-income people experience higher levels of obesity, diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases due to a variety of factors, including the simple fact that the cheapest and highest-energy food is usually high in fat and sugar.
These trends are what ACCESS's food and fund drive intends to fight in the Rogue Valley.
"We have an opportunity to not only provide enough food, but the right food," Yates says.
The organization gathers input through community food assessments that invite people across the county to better inform the network of their needs and the best ways to meet them. Programs such as free healthy cooking classes offered at ACCESS mobile food pantries were established because of community input.
The food and fund drive invites all Rogue Valley residents to help feed food-insecure households healthfully. In the winter months, one of the options for food-insecure families to obtain healthy food — farmers markets — temporarily vanish. A grant-funded program that enabled Jackson County residents receiving food stamps to have their spending matched at farmers' markets will come to an end with the season, so the state of that partnership is now in flux.
Yates says that food stamps, known officially as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP), are typically insufficient to sustain families for an entire month.
"Even though many of the families we serve are low-income families and they get food stamps, those only last two or three weeks," he says. "If we weren’t able to be there, families would ultimately be hungry for the last week or 10 days."
Last year, ACCESS received 22,000 pounds of food and $32,217 in donations through the annual Food for Hope drive, which provided 183,085 pounds of food. That number was lower than the two preceding years.
ACCESS encourages donors to give either nonperishable foods high in protein, such as peanut butter or canned soup, tuna or vegetables, or to make a cash donation. Yates says ACCESS can purchase up to five pounds of food with every donated dollar.
— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.