Back in April, we convened a COVID-19 Strategy Session about feeding our communities through pandemic. Still in the early days of the pandemic, and unsure of how long it might last, farmers, food banks, and rural organizers came together to share how they were ensuring our communities could access food when grocery store shelves ran low and paychecks didn’t come in. Some came together to redistribute their COVID relief checks to families facing unemployment, while others shared that they were making their own pop-up food banks and organizing free food programs for kids hit by school closures.
A lot has happened since that initial call: we’ve watched as our highly fragile food system reach a breaking point. Millions of pounds of dairy and produce were destroyed while fear and panic drove excess buying, leaving shelves empty. A lack of Personal Protective Equipment and unsafe working conditions for farm and food processing workers continues to bring outbreaks across our state, disproportionately impacting our immigrant communities. When paychecks didn’t come in and shelves ran low, many folks turned to their local food banks for help, sometimes for the first time. While many were able to find some needed relief, other members of our communities have been unable to access food through these channels, with prohibitive eligibility verification requirements, lack of translation services, immigration status creating unnecessary barriers to access. Some have even met by racist threats, intimidation, and discrimination– all for trying to access badly needed food to keep themselves and their families fed.
As rural Oregonians, we know that the systems in place aren’t coming to meet us, or certainly not fast enough. In the place of poorly functioning and underfunded social service agencies, community networks formed or re-emerged across our state in the face of pandemic, with community members coming together to meet one another’s immediate needs and solve immediate problems. People are using imaginative forms of mutual aid to take good care of each other in ways and on a scale that may have been unimaginable just a couple long months ago.
As we continue to collectively build a food system that works for everyone, we’re also making sure that people’s immediate needs are being met. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing weekly updates about the work that rural organizers have taken on to ensure that their neighbors are staying fed during pandemic.
To hear personal stories about how rural Oregonians met immediate food needs while working to build a new future– Listen to “Feeding Our Communities” from Rural Roots Rising, our monthly podcast and radio show. Read on to learn about how one small community is fighting to keep their everyone fed, without barriers!
In Douglas County, the residents of Oakland (population: 947) are coming together to provide food to whoever wants it — no barriers and no questions asked! When Covid-19 closed Oakland’s schools this spring, a group of local volunteers, gathered by the school district, began distributing school lunches at a neighborhood park. While kids were getting fed, paychecks that stopped rolling in, along with Without any no-barrier food sites around for miles, community members knew that something had to be done to make sure that their neighbors were being fed.
While kids were getting fed, many others in the community struggled to get their needs met. Across the street from the community park sits the Oakland Ice House Emporium, a central meeting place for the community. Volunteers decided that the bench outside the Ice House was the perfect place for a pop-up food shelf, one with no barriers, and no questions asked! Conni, the owner of the thrift store inside the Emporium, was one of those volunteers, and offered the bench up as the perfect place to operate a food shelf.
Like many rural organizers, Conni wears many hats — while operating an antique store inside, she also runs the Oakland Good News Gazette, the neighborhood Facebook page that keeps community members connected. When new items are available, Conni posts on the Gazette. Now, community gardeners drop off excess produce whenever they have it available.
It doesn’t just stop at food, though! Two local leaders offered to join forces with the volunteers, sewing free masks and leaving them on the bench each week. Because of the grab-and-go nature of the bench, the volunteer base has expanded: now anyone can drop food off at the bench. When folks come to pick food up, no questions are asked– no ID or utility bill is required to be shown. Folks take what they need, and leave what they can!
The Oakland Ice House bench is just one example of how organizers across the state are making sure our communities are staying fed. Are you organizing around food access in your community or looking for a way to get started? We want to hear about it! Don’t hesitate to reach out to Paige at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay tuned for more stories of rural food organizing in the future.