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Food drive with a can-do attitude

MEDFORD — Despite sluggish donations for the 35th annual ACCESS Food for Hope campaign, longtime ACCESS spokesperson Philip Yates said he is ever-optimistic about the community’s track record for stepping up to help feed hungry neighbors.

Anticipating upcoming need, ACCESS put a call out at Thanksgiving time for nonperishable food and cash donations.

Even at 40 percent of the 20,000 pounds of food donations sought — and one-fifth the goal of $40,000 — Yates said he would be surprised for the annual campaign were to fall short of its Dec. 30 goals. So far ACCESS has collected $8,000 in donations and 8,000 pounds of food.

Admittedly, with just two weeks remaining in the calendar year, he’s always sure to put the word out about need vs. supply.

“The major thing that’s always impressed me is that this community always comes through,” Yates said. “As long as you can emphasize or tell the story then people respond. If it’s a genuine need out there and you ask the community to help, it’s been my experience over the years that this community is one that comes through.”

After nearly three decades of Yates’ career with ACCESS, he said he has watched community support grow almost as exponentially as the level of hunger in southern Oregon.

“Need is certainly something that has changed drastically over the years,” Yates said. “I actually started about three days before Thanksgiving in 1991. At that point, I think we were delivering about 500,000 pounds of food per year. And now, we’re at almost 4.3 million pounds.”

Retiring to half-time work come January, the outgoing nutrition programs director officially has been dubbed a ‘nutrition resources director’ while he supports the agency as he transitions to leave.

The almost-teacher and telecommunications guru discovered a passion for serving the community after moving to the U.S. from Australia, and said he has watched the agency grow and evolve to address the changing face of hunger.

“People who get a box of food today, we’re making sure they don’t go hungry tonight,” Yates said. “But our food tomorrow programs are programs give them resources to be able to help themselves out and be able to eat more nutritionally.”

The need, to be sure, is in the empty pantries of more than 27,000 individuals who turned to ACCESS for help with food last year, noted Yates. The demographics served by ACCESS are surprising including two-income households, retirees and professional community members struggling with cost of living for the region.

“It is quite common that we see where there are two adults working in the home and barely making it just because it’s so expensive to live here,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of community members realize that the face of hunger could literally be anyone. It could be your next-door neighbor, a teacher ... and these are not people who have put themselves in this crisis situation. These are people who are working hard to do what they’re supposed to, and they simply cannot make ends meet without nutritional assistance.”

Yates said ACCESS has worked hard to develop “food today” and “food tomorrow” programs during his tenure. Food today refers to food box assistance and other immediate sources of relief. Food tomorrow programs include resources and educational programs that teach everything from cooking and gardening skills.

Healthier food options, and pantries focused on feeding clients with chronic health issues, help to create a healthier community overall, Yates said, meaning fewer medical issues and long-term health.

“We’ve added gardens that are producing organic vegetables, cooking classes,” he said. “We’re giving people tools. One of the proudest things I could say is we’re maybe more holistically looking at the needs of the people in our community. We’re focusing on the need to provide more fresh foods.”

Regionally, Yates said, some 35 percent of households in Jackson County don’t earn enough to meet basic needs. More than half those individuals are working, retired or disabled and some 30 percent are children. One in four children in Jackson County do not have enough to eat, which Yates says is shocking even to seasoned food program officials.

“I believe when community members care for one another, our community benefits as a whole,” he said. “The only way we’re going to change the world is to make change within our own community and this community has done an incredible job of proving that theory.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

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