Friday mornings are usually one of the slower days of the week for the volunteers at the Tualatin Food Pantry.
But the week before the Thanksgiving holiday remains an exception. On this particular Friday in late November, teams of one-time volunteers from local businesses shuttle in and out of the pantry’s distribution center as part of those companies’ annual charitable efforts. It’s the first of three days that special holiday food packages are distributed to the pantry’s regular clients. The resulting bustle of people moving in and out of the pantry, which is located in the basement of the Rolling Hills Church off S.W. Borland Road, combined with a steady stream of vehicles arriving to pick up food boxes, creates a scene that, to the untrained eye, looks almost chaotic.
But for Tracy Smith, the pantry’s program coordinator, it all makes perfect sense. Smith is in charge of assigning volunteers, both the regulars and the newcomers, to the tasks that need to be accomplished. At the same time, she’s answering the phones and also stepping in to help fill food boxes and sort items on the pantry’s shelves. Anything that needs to be done, really.
“I do have volunteers who lead each day, and I would technically be in doing the field trips and scheduling, but I’m always filling in when I need to,” Smith said.
That’s life working for a nonprofit organization, and Smith wouldn’t trade it for anything. She’s worked for 12 years at the pantry, which is part of the Oregon Food Bank network, and demand for its services has never been greater.
“It’s huge,” she said. “It’s bigger than you think.”
In large part, that is due to the ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted the economy in ways society never predicted. One result is that despite several massive federal relief packages, the loss of jobs and careers continues to impact local residents, many of whom previously never sought assistance of any kind. That’s where the pantry can step in and provide some respite.
“My fellow food pantries, I heard from one friend in Northeast (Portland), they went from serving 100 families to 1,000 families,” Smith said. “We actually went down, but that’s because Packed with Pride (run by the Foundation for Tigard-Tualatin Schools) opened and they were serving around 800 families, which is more than we have ever served because we were at 500. They were at all these pop-up sites in Tualatin giving out these Farm-to-Family boxes, so they really helped cover a lot of that increased need.”
The individual food pantries weren’t affected as much as you would think, she added. But that can be misleading.
“It would give you a false sense of how there wasn’t an increase in need,” she said. “But if you have five pop-up sites and a brand new food pantry, that’s a lot of new need. Those boxes stopped in June, so now the food banks are starting to see the clients shifting. We are seeing a whole slew of new clients who got that unique pop-up pandemic help. So, there won’t be a day that goes by without new clients walking in here.”
On occasion, the group’s 125 regular volunteers are augmented by a steady stream of temporary volunteers who arrive at the pantry for a day or two as part of what Smith calls “field trips.” On this day, a large group from Lam Technology’s Tualatin plant arrives and many of them appear a little lost. That’s where Smith and other regulars step in to offer guidance and find them appropriate work.
“We both work for Lam Research and they put out a request for volunteers last week and we both signed up,” said Ty Huard, who along with fellow Lam employee Helen Peynado, filled boxes of deserts bound for special holiday kits given out for Thanksgiving along with the regular food boxes.
Up to 12 regular volunteers staff the pantry on any given day, and it’s not uncommon to find whole families pitching in to help.
“It just comes down to how you want your society to function,” said Barbara Feist, who volunteers on a regular basis with her husband, Alan, and her daughter, Davina. “We all are so much better off when everyone is taken care of, we all benefit. And here at the food band, we give people a little extra help, and that might help keep them off the streets or keep them from being homeless. It might be enough to help to get them that next job, so that they can do that as well. I just went a year without work and we were lucky that we could afford that.”
The Tualatin Food Pantry is fortunate to receive regular food donations from local supermarkets, food distribution centers and a plethora of regular food drives hosted by local businesses. They use cash donations to purchase perishable products like meats, cheese and eggs to add to the food boxes received by clients. These clients used to receive one box per month with enough food for seven to 10 days, Smith said, but that has been bumped up to two boxes a month during the pandemic, due to the increase in need.
“Most of our clients only come four to five months of the year,” she said. “We’re finding that with most of them, when they have an unexpected expense, that brings them to the food bank. So, your car breaks down, I will help you that month. You turn on the heat and it costs too much, I will help you that month. Christmas, I will help you.”
She also noted that the pantry’s home at Rolling Hills Church is advantageous because its association with the cluster of nonprofit groups that operate there. These include the Borland Free Clinic and its health care services, Northwest Children’s Outreach, which provides emergency clothing for kids 18 and under, as well as a dental van sponsored by Medical Teams International and Legacy Meridian Park Hospital. The church itself also hosts Hope’s Table, which offers showers, laundry services and cold weather shelter space for unhoused clients, which make up a small, but significant portion of the food pantry’s clientele.
“It’s pretty cool when families come here, they can get so many services all in one spot,” Smith said.
Volunteer Linda Brecke agreed and said she started offering her time at the food bank in March 2020, as the pandemic first began to impact Oregon residents. At that time, Smith was working to shift the space from an in-person shopping experience to a distribution center where people picked up pre-packed boxes outside. Within six months, Brecke was moved into a team lead position, supervising a shift of volunteers on Mondays and occasionally Fridays.
“I just started showing up and helping out, and I found I just loved the people I worked with,” Brecke said. “They’re just amazing volunteers and they’re fun and hardworking, and you really feel like you’re accomplishing something helping people. And our clients do appreciate it, so it’s nice to do something that gives to the community, but I also get a lot out of it as well.”