In February 2019, ROP was gifted the downtown Cottage Grove building that is now known affectionately as the Community Building Center. We had no idea then that the Center would grow to become a bustling hub of activity during the COVID-19 pandemic and catastrophic wildfires, bringing together dozens of service agencies and hundreds of volunteers to share hundreds of thousands of pounds of food and supplies. Almost two years later, we hold one of the largest food pantries in Lane County and our model and example are being shared out statewide because of its accessibility and responsiveness. Read on to learn more about how ROP’s community food pantry connects with thousands of families each month and the ways you can support this powerful community building work!
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In 2019, ROP leaders set out to build the Community Building Center as a safe gathering space for community members and human dignity groups to come together, organize, connect, share stories, and respond to crises or opportunities to build stronger rural communities. In March 2020, the pandemic hit and soon it was made clear how badly safety nets had eroded in the greater Cottage Grove area, especially for folks who were already struggling to make ends meet, houseless folks, and folks of color, especially migrants and refugees. Thousands of South Lane families who relied on the free and reduced meals program at their schools were suddenly going without. When the (now former) McKinney-Vento liaison for South Lane School District reached out to us about collaborating to create a space to stockpile food and supplies for school faculty and teachers to pick up and deliver to students and their families, we didn’t hesitate. While the school district worked to line up donations and food drives, ROP got to work turning our Center’s large kitchen into a shopping center.
As teachers and faculty stopped by the Center to pick up food before driving miles and miles, sometimes hours, in every direction to some of the most remote parts of the county, they shared how desperate families were for food and supplies. With store shelves bare, traveling to town to shop often didn’t guarantee you could find essentials like sanitizer, toilet paper, laundry detergent, and more. We began brainstorming about how we could join together to better meet the needs of the community.
Within a few weeks, we pulled together a multilingual team of area human dignity group leaders, teachers, and community service agency workers to hold down twice-weekly opportunities for families to “shop” for themselves, choosing from a variety of culturally relevant foods, locally grown produce, masks, sanitizer, hygiene supplies, accurate COVID-19 information, and the opportunity to learn about accessible community services and resources with no questions asked or limits on how much food folks could take. Many food pantries within Lane County were out of reach because of their location and hours, but also because they only provided resources in English, restricted access through barriers like proof of address and income, and didn’t provide resources for Latinx community members. Soon, hundreds of families were lining up for the pantry each Tuesday and Thursday. Our patio became a place where Friends of the Library would read multilingual books to kiddos, volunteers led socially-distanced origami lessons, kiddos from different families played soccer while waiting to shop, and played together in the sprinklers in the summers. One volunteer noted that the Center had become the most multicultural community space in South Lane County.
Now, almost two years later, we are one of the largest food pantries in Lane County and continue to grow our partnerships with the amazing folks at Looking Glass Rural Program, the Hope and Safety Alliance, South Lane Mental Health, the Coast Fork Watershed Council, Tucker’s Cupboard, First Presbyterian Congregation of Cottage Grove, Soup’s On, South Lane School District’s Community Resource Specialists, Family Resource Center, Family Relief Nursery, Be Your Best, Cottage Grove Mutual Aid, Tree of Joy, Food for Lane County, Oregon Food Bank, and hundreds of local businesses and farms.
Through the wildfires, Cottage Grove was surrounded and became the place of refuge for thousands of families that had lost their homes. We also had the worst air quality in the world, and many agencies shut their doors to farmworkers who were continuing to work in the fields through terrible conditions. Families were calling us asking if we were still open because everywhere else had closed and they needed resources. Our volunteers and staff prioritized getting N95s and respirators to farmworking families and redoubled our efforts to always remain open when we’ve committed to the community. A family suggested we should adopt the adage, “these doors don’t shut – unless they’re on fire,” which we dutifully repeated and have lived up to since.
As spoken by a fifth grade patron, “this is the best food pantry ever! Yeah, it’s awesome.” This may have been influenced by the cake she chose for her dad’s birthday that week.
Every week we hear stories of the incredible impact the pantry has had on individuals and families. The pantry has given folks the autonomy to decide for themselves what foods they want and in what quantity, some who have never had the opportunity to shop in a grocery store. We’ve made available needed hygiene supplies, pet food, and disinfectant, saving families money for other dire needs experienced throughout the pandemic, like rising housing costs. The pantry has consistently been a place where people and whole families with their kids are welcomed and valued in a way that, sadly, many are not accustomed to. This has rippled out into other facets of people’s lives with the Community Building Center helping lift the weight of food scarcity off of folks’ shoulders.
It is because of the work of human dignity groups, local volunteers, and the generosity of ROP donors that we have been able to sustain this important work. We have seen bonds built between community members that do not speak the same language, neighbors helping neighbors home with their groceries, and individuals connected to much needed services in the area like the Oregon Worker Relief Fund because they came to the Community Building Center.
In keeping with the mission of the Community Building Center, the pantry has expanded the number of people who have come to see the space as a safe harbor. People consistently reach out for resources and support, knowing they can ask questions and build connections in Spanish, Mam, and English with staff members, volunteers, and community members.
Please join us in keeping this and other important work going with a meaningful donation and don’t hesitate to reach out to Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or to get started volunteering with ROP!