Milton-Freewater food bank’s shelves grow lean

Lisa Sasser restocks the shelves with more food at the Bread Basket in Milton Freewater.

Lisa Sasser restocks the shelves with more food at the Bread Basket in Milton Freewater. Photo by Michael Lopez.

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MILTON-FREEWATER — Friday morning dawned clear and frosty, making the little lobby keep-your-coat-on chilly. Folks waiting their turn for groceries in the building on Seventh Avenue didn’t seem to mind.

The atmosphere at the town’s food pantry is more like a neighborhood gathering of familiar faces and exchanges of “Good morning” and “How’s your mom?”

Yet for everyone waiting in chairs lining the room, this is more than a social visit. The day’s purpose — getting help to feed their families — is mapped out on more than a few faces.

One early customer waits at the blocked-off doorway of the room where volunteers for Milton-Freewater’s Bread Basket hustle to get shelves stocked for the morning rush. The pantry is open Monday and Friday, 9:30 a.m. to noon, and clients are allowed to come twice a month to get groceries.

Rubbing her hands anxiously, the woman leans forward to peer at the available selection. Exhaustion shows on her face. As volunteer Lisa Sasser cheerfully lists off choices — “Rice? Brown or white? Peanut butter today?” — the client quietly responds.

A pinched look around her eyes briefly disappears in a smile when Sasser offers a package of blueberry muffins, donated from a local bakery. “Yes, please,” the woman says. “Thank you.”

Established in 1986 by the town’s ministerial association, the free food program serves more than 600 people a month, said Bread Basket President Bob Frye. Like food pantries everywhere, this one is beginning to feel the sting of recent food stamp cuts and seeing inventory begin to dwindle.

“Since the first of the year, we’re down one-half of our supply, at least,” Frye said.

In Umatilla County, nearly 15 percent of the population in general — more than 10,000 people — and 26 percent of children lived with food insecurity in 2011, without adequate nutritious food for an active, healthy lifestyle, as defined by the federal government.

Oregon has one of the highest rates of childhood hunger in the nation, according to information supplied by Portland-based Oregon Food Bank. Despite a bounty of agricultural production, large numbers of youths rely heavily on free and reduced-cost school meal programs for food, struggling to get properly fed during summer, holidays and on weekends, the organization noted in its report, “The State of Our Community Food System.”

Although rural life used to be considered a bastion of self-sufficiency, residents in such areas are seeing food production become highly specialized and export-based.

In some cases, a lack of transportation keeps people from accessing full grocery choices, the report’s authors noted. “Folks from around the state commented that even though food is seemingly available in their communities, it is either of poor nutritional quality or too expensive.”

Quality is not an issue at the Bread Basket, said Lori, a customer who declined to give her last name. “The food is really good.”

She drives her daughter Katie to the pantry when the cupboards are getting bare toward the end of the month, she said. Katie, 29, has a young son with behavioral challenges — finding child care for him after school has proved unsuccessful.

“Even the school has problems with him,” Lori said. “So she stays home with him.”

Katie, who did not reveal her last name, is filling out a form to sign up for the Milton-Freewater Ministerial Association’s Christmas food box giveaway as she waits her turn to get a few bags of groceries.

Food stamp cutbacks have made things more difficult, she said. “You do what you can.”

In the past year her daughter has been coming, Lori has seen the pantry get busier.

“It’s so sad to see,” she said. “There are more people all the time.”

Initially, it was embarrassing to be counted among those needing help, the two women agreed.

“But you get used to it,” Katie said.

“You’re just so grateful when you get it,” Lori added.

The last thing he and his volunteer staff want is for anyone to suffer a loss of dignity, Frye said.

“We all work hard doing what we do, and we enjoy each other,” the retired pastor explained.

The community does what it does, as well. Food comes from churches, backyard gardens, orchards, school and Post Office food drives and Safeway. The grocery store — the largest in town — donates a few thousand dollars worth of food every month, said Bread Basket account keeper Wanda Dombrosky.

Still, Bread Basket has had to begin paying for food to dispense, Frye said.

“Last month we had to buy $1,500 from Oregon Food Bank,” he said. In the same month, 20 new faces showed up to get food help, he said.

The Bread Basket’s 12 freezers and six refrigerators are relatively full on this day. One giant chest freezer is chock full of frozen turkeys that will go out in the December food-box distribution. In general, however, a lack of frozen meat is a problem at the moment, Frye said.

Yet there is bacon, ground chicken and some small turkeys for today’s clients, he tells Sasser as she eyes her inventory.

“Or, if they don’t want that, we’ve got beef stew or chili.”

And tuna fish, Frye added, “is the backup.”

The goal is to hand out the right amount of food, depending on family size, while giving customers as much choice as possible, Sasser explained.

Including a row of Dairy Queen treats in one freezer.

“We give that to the kids,” Frye said with a grin. “I bring them back here and let them choose something. The kids are precious.”

For more information about Bread Basket, call Frye at 529-4030.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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