Philip Yates spent his first Thanksgiving working for ACCESS by playing an early Santa Claus.
Three days into his new job in late November of 1991, his deliveries weren’t wrapped presents, but baskets of food to families and individuals in need.
Those 80-plus baskets had been donated to ACCESS on his very first day, leaving Yates, who currently serves as the nonprofit’s nutrition director, to figure out how to deliver them with a staff of three people — including him.
“Having just arrived there, I had no idea how to go about doing that,” Yates said in a telephone interview Friday.
But he got it done with the help he had, and by 7:30 or so Thanksgiving night, the baskets had been delivered.
“That was a great initiation of understanding the need, a little bit,” Yates said.
Nearly three decades after that initiation, Yates plans to retire from his post at the Jackson County nonprofit, which oversees multiple area programs designed to help residents become self-sustaining through assistance that includes one-time emergency help and long-term aid, according to the ACCESS website.
Yates will transition to part-time status this fall after 27 years. He will help in overseeing the leadership transition, and after someone has been hired to replace him, will retire fully.
“Philip has brought so much to ACCESS and our region through building a strong food network, raising unbelievable funds for our nutrition team and the area pantries, starting innovative programs and building community in all that he has accomplished,” ACCESS Executive Director Pamela Norr said in a written statement. “As an organization, personally and professionally, we wish Philip the very best. Philip, and his leadership, will be greatly missed.”
Yates worked in ACCESS’ food and nutrition programs until 1996, when he became development director for the nonprofit. In 2001, he went back to the nutrition program, where he’s worked as director ever since.
Coming back to where he started proved initially to be a challenge.
“Oregon was the worst state in the nation in terms of hunger,” Yates said. “We had to start to rethink what we were doing to help people who were hungry.”
ACCESS had to get creative with new programs. Some fizzled, including an initiative to get unused food from restaurants. Others, such as the Fresh Alliance, a program in which ACCESS collects meats, dairy products and other protein-rich foods from supermarkets, had traction. At Fresh Alliance’s inception, ACCESS partnered with Fred Meyer and Albertsons.
“Now we partner with every major store in the valley,” Yates said.
Another successful venture came in 2011-12, when ACCESS performed a community food assessment, surveying people on their nutritional needs and how ACCESS could better serve them. Food share gardens were among the results, and have grown into a five-farm network producing tens of thousands of pounds of organic vegetables on donated lands throughout the county.
“That’s really a pride and joy of mine,” Yates said.
Another recent development Yates oversaw involves partnering with area health clinics such as Rogue Community Health and La Clinica to provide a “healthy mobile food pantry” offering nutritional education services and cooking classes to those needing to make dietary changes because of health issues.
During Yates’ career, the ACCESS nutrition program has gone from providing about 500,000 pounds of food annually to close to 4 million pounds now. The original staff of three in the department has grown to 11, Yates said.
Yates said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife, traveling and taking on volunteer opportunities.
“It’s fulfilling work,” Yates said. “But at the same time, I want to spend some time exploring other avenues.”
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