Rural Organizing Project takes on food pantry status

Volunteers prepare food in ROP’s kitchen on Feb. 18. With an average of 600 families served per week, the organization is on the constant lookout for those who can volunteer time, items or skills.

As communities continue to feel the burden of the pandemic’s economic devastation, food security has risen to be a more prominent issue in many households.

In response to that demand, the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) in Cottage Grove has established another pillar of support in the community by acquiring status as an official food pantry.

“A lot of what we’ve been doing is convening people around emergency access to food during the pandemic,” said Executive Director of Rural Organizing Project Jessica Campbell.

ROP is a statewide grassroots organization which focuses on multiple rural issues through autonomous work in communities, often addressing topics related to equality and justice.

Shortly after its current space on Main Street was donated to the group two years ago, the building began serving as a hub for victims of the 2019 snowstorm to rest, fill up on basic provisions and connect with others.

As ROP continued to serve in partnership with other organizations in the community, Campbell said the group’s importance of addressing needs in the area became clear, especially after COVID-19 restrictions began.

“It was just an overwhelming need, not only for food, but also culturally relevant food,” said Campbell. “In particular with communities that are really concerned about their own safety and the safety of their families, because many of the communities of color in this area are disproportionately impacted by COVID.”

Though the organization prioritized food, the facility’s stock grew to keep more and more housewares, clothing and hygiene items per popular request.

With demand came more networking with other local groups – and more clientele.

Just before last year’s wildfires sent people en masse searching for aid and shelter, Campbell recalls the group was serving 400 to 500 families per week.

During that disaster, one week saw about 80,000 pounds worth of items distributed to desperate families. It was around this time the team started seriously considering taking on a more official status.

As of Jan. 1, ROP has operated as a second official food pantry for Cottage Grove – the other being Community Sharing.

The new status has given ROP access to food from the United States Department of Agriculture and Food for Lane County.

The latter, which operates as Lane County’s food bank, makes a particular effort to obtain and provide food relevant to Latino culture, a line item for which ROP is finding demand.

“What we have seen is that there’s a huge amount of folks that are really looking for culturally relevant foods that are often very expensive or difficult to obtain in Cottage Grove,” said Campbell.

As well as providing culturally specific food, ROP has been able to increase its overall supply.

“What it does is it allows for us to sustain the program longer term because now we don’t have to purchase all of that food,” said Campbell. “Ultimately, it means that we have just a higher volume of food.”

Previously, volunteers in the group would have to load cars or trucks full of items and rely heavily on donations and purchased items.

“Now we get weekly truckloads of six to seven thousand pounds of food,” Campbell said. “So that’s been our commitment, is trying to make food as accessible as possible – and to make sure that we’re not just like handing people pre-made boxes with stuff that they don’t actually want.”

Campbell said the organization is now serving an average of about 600 families a week, sometimes rising as high as eight or nine hundred.

Public access to the pantry is low barrier, too.

“We have very few limits, so folks can grab for other families if they want,” Campbell said. “And we don’t ask a lot of questions. It’s just, ‘What do you need? And what can we do to support you?’ Because we don’t want families coming here more often if they can avoid it.”

Every Tuesday and Thursday, families and individuals wait in a socially-distanced line which wraps around the building’s corner on Seventh Street. Two families at a time are let in to make their rounds through shelves and racks packed with diapers, books, shampoo, clothing and other items.

A well-stocked kitchen is part of the route, too, brimming with canned food and produce.

The collaborative flavor of the operation also avails clientele to multiple opportunities as various groups may be represented within the building at any time.

Campbell recalled about three dozen collaborating agencies and groups being part of the operation upon last count.

“So we can kind of help triage and help them understand what different options are in the community and sometimes even just hand them right over to the person who can address the needs that they have,” she said.

People can also make separate appointments for special cases such as disabilities or being at high risk for COVID. In these arrangements, boxes can be readied for pickup and there is a limited ability for delivery as well.

Currently, 68 volunteers keep the operation running, said Campbell, and the group is always in need of more donations and volunteers.

“That’s how we’re able to keep this afloat,” she said, “is volunteer-donated time, volunteer dollars to pay for diapers and that kind of stuff.”

A growth of volunteers could even lead to an expansion of services in the future.

In the meantime, ROP is on the lookout for volunteers who can commit to some physical work such as heavy lifting as well as more cerebral work such as graphic design for flyers and language interpretation.

Food handler’s licenses are needed for volunteers looking to help with food.

ROP’s current donation wish list includes food such as canned fruit or veggies, soup, ramen, canned chicken and flour or masa.

Needed hygiene items include toothpaste, diapers (sizes 5 and 6), baby wipes, toilet paper, paper towels, shampoo, soap and laundry detergent.

The organization is also in need of survival items such as sleeping bags, tents, tarps, propane, cookstoves, coats and shoes or boots. The group asks that these items be only new or gently used, however.

ROP opens to the public every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and every Thursday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The building can be found at 632 E Main Street in Cottage Grove.  Call 541-649-1169 for more information or to ask about special arrangements.

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