Community organizations join forces to reduce hunger in the Gorge

CRITICAL QUESTIONS about how to respond to community food insecurity formed the heart of the “Harvesting Our Stories” art and awareness project conducted this fall by Gorge Grown and other community organizations.

Photo by Kirby Neumann-Rea
CRITICAL QUESTIONS about how to respond to community food insecurity formed the heart of the “Harvesting Our Stories” art and awareness project conducted this fall by Gorge Grown and other community organizations.

Six months ago, representatives from over two dozen agencies and political offices met in The Dalles with an ambitious charge from the governor’s office: to form a coalition to decrease hunger and increase access to quality food in the Columbia River Gorge. Governor Kate Brown designated the project as an Oregon Solutions project in March at the request of a growing coalition of community members who were alarmed at the rates of hunger which have been uncovered in the Gorge over the past few years, and eager to do something about it. Over the past six months, these agencies have worked to identify gaps in the food system and set priorities to reduce food insecurity in the region. On Tuesday, Nov. 29, they met at FISH Food Bank in Hood River to formalize the creation of the Food Security Coalition, and their individual and collective commitments to collective activities to reduce hunger.

The catalyst for the current effort was a 2015 survey conducted by the Columbia Gorge Health Council and One Community Health, which sought to learn more about food insecurity in the Gorge. Food security, which the World Food Summit of 1996 defined as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life,” is the number one social determinant of health in the region. With more than 2,000 responses from throughout the Gorge, this survey demonstrated that one in three residents worry about running out of food, and one in five miss meals. Upon learning the magnitude of the problem, community organizations throughout the Gorge joined together to bring in Oregon Solutions to help develop a plan of action. Oregon Solutions is a program of the National Policy Consensus Center which helps to develop solutions to community-based problems through the collaborative efforts of citizens, businesses, government and non-profit organizations.

The young coalition has already achieved a number of victories over the past six months. Collaboration between tribal members, the Department of Human Services and the Oregon Food Bank led to the beginning of bi-monthly deliveries of produce to Celilo Village. Earlier this month, 10 members of the coalition went on a field trip to learn from organizations around the state who are engaged in food system work. The coalition was also awarded a $20,000 grant through the Wy’East Fund and the Taylor and Alice Alexander Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation to fund a program manager to staff the coalition and help advance their objectives over the coming year.

This position is already filled and working out of Gorge Grown Food Network, which will serve as a “backbone organization” for the coalition. Perhaps most impactful, however, are the relationships formed between organizations through the coalition, and the potential for partnerships they represent. After a conversation about what each organization wished it could do and what it needs help with at one of the meetings, one member expressed to the group that “everything we described that was a want or need, there was someone to meet that need. It was so great to be together to talk about these things because we are the solutions to each other’s problems.”

Mark Thomas, director of Mission Integration and Spiritual Care at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, and one of the co-conveners of the Oregon Solutions project, echoed this sentiment when discussing Tuesday’s signing ceremony of the Declaration of Cooperation.

“Solving hunger in our region can feel like boiling the ocean,” he said. “And it would be an impossible task for any one organization to take up alone. But I believe that we can and will address hunger in the Gorge in powerful ways by aligning our organizational will and resources, to haul together toward that daunting goal. I believe that, between us, and through really listening to the people experiencing the need, that we have the resources, creativity and trust to make the Columbia Gorge a place where hunger is not part of the experience of poverty.”

Thomas was joined in convening the Oregon Solutions process by Ken Bailey, vice president of Orchard View Farms and Regional Solutions Committee member. Thomas and Bailey will hand off their leadership to emerging leaders in the coalition on Tuesday, though they are likely to stay active in the coalition’s efforts to improve access to healthy food.

While Tuesday’s Declaration of Cooperation signing ceremony will mark the end of the Oregon Solutions process with a celebration of accomplishments and commitments made so far, this is only the beginning of the coalition’s work. Over the coming year, they will lay the groundwork to strengthen the food system from producer to consumer, addressing gaps and barriers to ensuring access to healthy food to everyone in the Gorge.

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