Putting down roots: Pantry closer to permanent home

ASHLAND — The Ashland Emergency Food Bank for the first time is establishing some roots of its own — literally.

A former patch of weeds turned on-site organic garden will bolster the bank's supply of fresh produce to hungry shoppers, and is a glimpse of what the organization hopes to accomplish if it can attain a permanent home.

"Now that we're getting closer to that goal, we're getting more comfortable getting behind investments like this," says Pam Marsh, smiling down at the tops of turnips, heads of lettuce and large leaves of kale in four raised beds behind the Emergency Food Bank.

"We've never gotten to the point where we've had enough fresh produce at the food bank ... we have no trouble giving it away," says Marsh, the food bank's manager. "This is a good use of a place that was just a weed lot."

The hope, she says, is to have 24 raised beds in the garden pumping out fresh produce for the food bank.

"I can't even wrap my head around how much that would give us," she says.

The idea for a garden at the food bank sprouted at the beginning of this year from a meeting with Ashland City Farm founders Michael White and Barbara Rapp, says Marsh, and interest from South Medford High School senior Riley Finnegan, who is working the garden to fulfill her senior project requirements with the school.

"Youthful energy led by the wisdom of the two garden gurus made it happen," Marsh says.

The plot of about 20 fruit trees, a row of thornless blackberry bushes and four raised beds filled with rich soil and veggies came together mostly because of the joint efforts of the food bank, nonprofit Ashland City Farm, and local faith-based Burning Heart Junior Youth Group, but several local businesses and individuals donated labor and materials, Marsh says.

So far this season, the garden has produced more than 20 pounds of spring mix for the food bank, White says.

"The clientele using the food bank are getting some righteous produce from these beds," says Rapp. "It's some of the best around."

This time of the year, people using the food bank spend most of their time searching for ripe fruits and vegetables from the produce table, Marsh says.

A handful of farms, gardens and grocery stores donate produce to the food bank on a regular basis, but the only formal agreement the food bank has for bringing in produce is with the Ashland Rotary Club's garden.

Those donations pour into the food bank during every summer, but disappear with the growing season, Marsh says. But Rapp and White say they can keep the food bank's garden going year-round.

Things slow down, but winter growing in the Rogue Valley isn't hard, they say, with the help of mesh cloth for warmth and cover.

Material donations and volunteerism are essential to the garden at this point, Marsh says, so the project can succeed without diverting money away from the food bank's goal of fundraising at least $475,000 to purchase its current home by the end of August.

Donations to the food bank can be made by contacting pam.ashlandfoodbank@gmail.com or by calling 541-488-9544.

Donations to the food bank can be earmarked for the garden, she says, but funds are especially needed to purchase the building.

Donations for the garden will go toward building a deer fence and additional beds, White says.

Last week, one anonymous donor agreed to match any donations to the food bank on a 3-to-1 basis through Aug. 1, Marsh says.

That means every $25 donated will be matched by $75.

"Owning the building and being here as long as we want is huge ... it's our primary focus," Marsh says.

The building on Clover Lane, a former home to Kentucky Fried Chicken and A&W, comes with a big freezer and refrigerators, loading dock — and is owned in foreclosure by People's Bank of Commerce.

To date, the food bank has raised about $350,000, says Marsh, $87,000 of which it received from the city of Ashland's Community Development Block Grant funds. The goal is $600,000 — $475,000 for the building and $125,000 for maintenance and reserves.

The nonprofit has rented spaces previously on Second Street and on Ashland Street near the railroad overpass, but was required to leave both spots, landing on Clover Lane a year-and-a-half ago.

With a budget of $115,000, the food bank operates mainly with volunteers, most of them from faith organizations, Marsh says, and now pays $600 a month for rent.

Marsh estimates the food bank serves about 1,200 people each month, more than half of whom are part of working families.

"The people coming here want fresh food," Marsh says. "When the food bank started ... fresh food was an additive. We're working to shift that."

An essential part of making that shift, she says, is finding a permanent, self-managed space to grow the food.

"We're on our way."

Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Talent. Email him at Samuelcwheeler@gmail.com.

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