Now entering into its busiest time of the year, the Wallowa County Food Bank in Enterprise and Wallowa is preparing to meet the food needs of the county.
“It’s essential,” said Connie Guentert, manager of Community Connection of Wallowa County, which oversees the food bank. “Food is a basic need.”
Countywide, the food bank serves about 75 families and about 190 people each month, she said.
“That number ebbs and flows,” she said. “That number continues to increase in the winter – significantly.”
She noted the special circumstances that arise during the colder months.
“The holidays are during that time, people with seasonal jobs are not working … and relying on unemployment,” Guentert said. “So the food bank is extremely busy during the winter months.”
She sees the role of the food bank as vital to the community.
“A lot of people, a lot of families rely on the food bank to meet their needs every month,” she said. “Food and security, the food bank helps alleviate that.”
She said that although the food bank intends to help those in real need, recipients are not required to prove their income is low.
“It’s a self-declaration,” she said. “We have generous income levels. Anyone who qualifies for SNAP (food stamps), they’re definitely going to qualify for the food bank.”
One of the main programs that assists the food bank is the Fresh Alliance program, with partners Safeway in Enterprise and the Market Place in Joseph. Under Fresh Alliance, the grocery stores take fresh items that are about to reach their expiration dates off the shelves, freeze them and donate them to the food bank for distribution. Occasionally they’re items that cannot be frozen, such as produce.
Kayla Thacker, assistant manager at the Market Place in Joseph, said that the store started participating in Fresh Alliance officially about a month and a half ago. She said the food bank checks the items to make sure they’re safe to give out before distribution.
“That way (recipients) get a chance to go through the items and get fresh, not just canned, goods,” she said.
She didn’t have an estimate on the quantity the store donates to the food bank, other than about two to three totes a week.
“Each week it varies,” she said.
“We send them stuff we can no longer sell,” Thacker said. “It’s a little bit of everything, from canned chili to meat, produce and dairy.”
When it comes to dairy, she said, it’s not so much milk, but items such as cheese and yogurt.
Store and department managers at the Enterprise Safeway expressed enthusiasm over their store’s participation in the Fresh Alliance program, but deferred all questions to corporate officials in Portland, who did not respond to calls and emails.
Guentert said Fresh Alliance items are distributed two days a week each in Enterprise, Joseph and Wallowa.
“There’s no income guidelines on that,” she said. “We’re just spreading the wealth.”
Recipients of Fresh Alliance donations spoke with one voice during the distribution Friday, Nov. 15.
“I’ve heard it helps a lot of people with their budgets,” one woman said, a sentiment echoed by the approximately 10 people there.
“I find it invaluable for people who need it, “ one man said.
“We’re very thankful to the stores that donate,” another woman said.
And it’s not all just about receiving free food.
“The people here, we all visit,” the man said. “It’s a social thing. I don’t get out that much.”
Between the food bank and Fresh Alliance, Guentert said, they’re able to be of considerable help.
“When you combine it with the Fresh Alliance program, we partner to help people’s SNAP benefits last longer,” she said.
The Oregon Food Bank also contributes to local efforts, though local food banks pay a distribution cost.
“It’s pennies on the dollar, but we still have a distribution fee,” Guentert said.
She said the food bank has a budget of about $35,000 a year for food from Oregon Food Bank, operating the food bank and paying its staff, though many who work there are volunteers.
“There is no funding source for the food bank. We are totally reliant on local donations,” Guentert said. “We couldn’t do what we do without the generosity of all the people who live here, who contribute, who donate money and donate food and spend their time volunteering. It’s amazing.”