Florence Food Share in crisis

Local food share faces uphill battle as it heads into holiday season with low cash donations, delayed programs

Saturday, Nov. 4 - “We are strapped for cash,” Florence Food Share Executive Director Norma Barton said in reference to the current fiscal health of the 37-year-old program.

The reasons for the financial concerns come from a variety of problems, from unexpected changes and reduction in corporate donations of food, to a sizeable decline in general cash donations from the public this year.

Florence Food Share program suddenly finds itself faced with an uphill battle, trying to figure out how it can provide Thanksgiving dinners to the public, keep the lights on, pay its employees and continue to provide full pantries for the coming years.

“I don’t know if the public perception is that food share is rolling in money because of some of the remodeling that’s going on, but we really are not,” Barton said. “We’re very short in operating funds and are not receiving donations like we have in the past.”

That expansion was needed, according to Barton, because of a mandated increase in the population the program had to serve.

One of the major issues facing Florence Food Share is how to keep its operating funds full. These funds are used for various purposes, including maintaining insurance, paying utility bills and providing gas for its truck.

Along with these costs, the program had to take out its full line of credit.

For years, Florence Food Share has maintained a line of credit of $20,000, but last year it only needed to access $100 of that due to robust donations. However, because of the current dramatic decline in donations, this year it had to take out the full $20,000 to cover costs.

All of its operation costs are financed through donations.

These are different from restricted funds, which provides money for the food and other programs food share offers. These restricted funds cannot be transferred.

“We have a lot of restricted funds for different things,” Barton said. “We are extremely short on unrestricted funds to keep the lights on and the refrigerator going. We received grants totaling approximately $6,000 to maintain the garden this year. That’s great, but it is restricted to the garden.”

The organization’s operating funds are in danger right now. At this time last year, Florence Food Share had almost two months of operational funds. As of this writing, it has less than a week’s worth.

“We have to pay interest on the line of credit every month,” Barton said. “And then, when we have enough unrestricted cash, we can pay it back.”

But to get that unrestricted cash, the organization needs more donations.

“Our donations have slowed way down,” Barton said. “Typically, at this time of the year, we are receiving quite a bit more from the community.”

Last year, FOOD for Lane County, which is the supervising agency for Florence Food Share, regulated that the rural food shares create a second program to serve more people.

Before the rule, the food share’s pantry was open to individuals living at or below 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. Those individuals were allowed to come in 18 times per year to stock up three to five days’ worth of food.

The purpose of the food share is not to provide daily meals to those it serves, but to serve as a stopgap in times of dire need.

But last year, FOOD for Lane Country required an expansion of the people that the rural food shares had to serve.

Now, individuals living at or below 200 percent of the poverty line can sign up for the program.

“It’s the 15 percent that sometimes fall through the cracks,” Barton said. “They are still the working poor, but they don’t qualify to come shop at the pantry.”

Instead, the 15 percent has to obtain their food from a separate source, located in the lobby.

“There is less food in the lobby,” Barton said. “It has a little bit older produce, plus grains. If we have extra dairy, there is dairy.”

Unlike the traditional pantry, individuals who qualify for the lobby area can come in every day.

“What happened when Food for Lane Country implemented this new program, word got out that we were serving people that were making a little bit more money, and all of a sudden the lobby was flooded with people.”

Barton estimated that an additional 150 to 200 people per day arrived at the food share.

The already cramped lobby area became overwhelmed with new clients who did not know where to go and overcrowded the establishment.

“It was just a crowded, chaotic mess,” Barton said.

At the same time, more people were coming in who qualified for the pantry, which also became overburdened.

“If we have so many clients in here that the shelves become bare, we don’t have space to restock the shelves when the clients are there,” Barton said. “So very often clients are going to get much less of a selection because the cupboards are bare.”

It’s at this point Florence Food Share realized it needed an expansion, both to give room for lobby clients and allow food share staff to restock the pantry as clients were getting their own food.

The organization did not dip into the operational fund for the expansion, instead relying on grants and private donations. Eight donors gave a total of $67,000, and $83,000 was given through grants. These funds were restricted to the remodel only, and could not be used for operation costs.

Last year, as crowds were coming in, cash donations were plentiful.

“We had a banner year because of donations,” Barton said.

But this year, donations of decreased dramatically.

“I don’t know whether the cause of that is the perception that we’re rolling in cash because of the addition, or maybe there are just more nonprofits in town that are asking for money. I don’t know. Maybe the community’s dollars are spread thinner. I’m just not quite sure what the reason is,” she said.

As Florence Food Share has been working with an increase in clients and a decrease in funding, it has also been faced with two more unexpected challenges.

The first will affect this year’s Thanksgiving holiday.

In the past, Safeway has provided Thanksgiving meal packages to Florence Food Share that included a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy.

The program, called Turkey Bucks, was funded by cash donations given by Safeway customers to reduce hunger in local communities. The requests were made to customers at checkout stands, requesting amounts for $1, $5 and $10. Once Thanksgiving rolled around, the local Safeway market would take the cash, buy the turkey dinners and give them directly to Florence Food Share.

However, last month FOOD for Lane County was informed that Safeway would be changing how it works the program. Instead of having local outlets provide the food directly, the donated money will be sent to the Oregon Food Bank, which is located in Portland. The food will be purchased there, then shipped to regional food banks throughout the state, like FOOD for Lane County. At that point, FOOD for Lane County will distribute the food to local food shares.

FOOD for Lane County Resource Developer Brad Bassi stated the organization is “committed to getting each community outside of Eugene and Springfield its share of the donated product in as timely manner as possible.”

However, Lane County won’t begin receiving food shipments from the Oregon Food Bank until between Nov. 20 and the middle of December, most likely missing the Thanksgiving holiday entirely.

In response to the change, Safeway Communications and Public Affairs Director Jill McGinnis said, “We want to ensure that all food we provide, both in-store and out of store, is handled and distributed in a standard and food safe manner. That is why we have shifted to the distribution process that we have. This ensures that the cold chain stays intact and that no one is put at risk. Thankfully, this has allowed us to continue to provide meals to Florence Food Share and many other food pantries in small communities.”

Regarding the delay in delivery, McGinnis said, “The meal vendor, Safeway and the Oregon Food Bank are working diligently to ensure the best possible outcome for the recipients this holiday season.”

The decision to redirect the food was a corporate decision.

The local Safeway store has worked diligently to support food share, Barton pointed out.

This past Wednesday, Shorewood Senior Living began a 20-day food drive for the food share to help offset some of the shortages they’re facing. The local Safeway donated $600 worth of coupons as an incentive for customers to donate food.

“To be clear, we are going to be receiving a comparable amount of product from Food for Lane County from the local money Safeway is providing, but we are not receiving turkey dinners like we usually do,” Barton said. “I just want to make it really clear that the local Safeway had no say in this decision. I am very grateful for all of the support Safeway has always done for us.”

Despite the uncertainty, Barton is still working on raising funds for Thanksgiving dinner.

“Since I’ve found out about this, I’ve been putting the word out to various organizations, and I have since raised $4,000 so far,” Barton said.

So far, Florence Food Share has received pledges of $2,000 from Banner Bank, $1,000 from PeaceHealth Peace Harbor and $500 from Oregon Pacific Bank.

A Food share volunteer also donated $500 of their own money.

“This will purchase approximately 280 turkeys,” Barton said. “We are still looking for approximately 120 more in order to serve all of the families that will be wanting one.”

However, this year Florence Food Share cannot afford to buy entire meals, just the turkeys.

In the past, the food share has received turkeys from Cindy Wobbe’s Annual Food Share Pounding at Grocery Outlet, which last year brought in approximately 11,000 pounds of food.

But Barton said that fundraiser primarily fills the shelves after Thanksgiving, to ensure clients have food for the rest of the holiday season. The majority of those donations are non-perishable items.

There are other Thanksgiving dinners in the Siuslaw region, including Florence Kiwanis’ Free Community Thanksgiving Dinner on Thanksgiving Day. While that dinner serves hundreds of residents, regardless of need, it is a community dinner.

Florence Food Share’s Thanksgiving program allows families to cook meals in their home for a more intimate holiday.

Along with trying to find ways to provide Thanksgiving dinner, Florence Food Share received another setback via a reduction in donations from Three Rivers Casino Resort.

Originally, the casino offered a year-round program that would help fill the food share’s pantry. Twice a week, Three Rivers Players Club members could bring in 3 cans of food and receive a free bingo card.

But since the change in management in August, the promotion has been cancelled, decreasing the amount of food donated.

In the 2016 calendar year, food share received 15,893 pounds of food from Three Rivers, while this year only 11,767 pounds have been donated, producing a 4,126-pound deficit.

However, the 2016 total was for the entire year, and that deficit may be made up with Three Rivers’ Toy and Food Drive that runs Nov. 1 to Dec. 14.

That program, the 14th annual Toy and Food Drive, allows Players Club members to trade three cans of food for $5 in free play at the casino, potentially broadening the scope of donations from bingo players to all players within the casino.

However, donations can only be made once per week, compared to the twice per week of the previous bingo promotion.

Three Rivers’ drive only lasts for 44 days, not year-round like the bingo promotion, and food share could stand to lose up to 16,000 pounds of food in 2018 if another program is not instituted.

Three Rivers is working on creating a more permanent solution for Florence Food Share in the long term.

Three Rivers Casino Resort Director of Consumer Marketing Richard Colton stated that since the management changeover, Three Rivers has been working to revamp donation programs.

“We just started a charities committee team, which takes on all of these sorts of things,” Colton said. “We’ve never had that before. We just created it this week and had our first meeting. It had about 10 team leaders from various departments, including myself.”

While a decision hasn’t been made on food share yet, Colton will be working on the issue soon.

“I don’t think they can wait another month,” Colton said. “I know it’s that time of year that they really need the help.”

“This is an expected hit we’re going to be incurring next year, so we’re trying to put our heads together,” Barton said. “We are in the planning stages of a new fundraiser set tentatively for next September. I’m also looking for more grants for food. So, there’s money out there, I just have to find it.”

While any one of these issues would create a challenge for food share, all three at once have created a considerable burden on the institution. It also shows that, like most nonprofits, food share is running on razor-thin margins.

And the need is great.

According to City of Florence officials, there is a housing crisis in the Siuslaw region, with home prices and rental rates skyrocketing.

Many working residents are working low wage jobs that only provide minimum hours. To supplement this, they work two to three jobs just to cover costs. Even with that, some of these workers live in their cars or tents in friend’s yards.

Some senior residents are finding that programs like Social Security are stretched too thin, with more than 70 percent of their income going to rent alone. This often does not include the cost of utilities.

These economic factors have placed additional stress on programs like Florence Food Share, as its purpose is not to provide full time food for families, but to supplement them in hard times.

“Food share really helps those people who are either the working poor or the unemployed or seniors on a fixed income,” Barton said. “It helps them so they don’t have to choose between getting prescription medication or eating, or choosing between paying their heating bill during the winter bill or eating. Because of us they can do both.”

But as wages go down and rent rises, people are relying on these programs more and more for everyday survival.

But this does not mean that these programs are giving up.

Florence Food Share President Rick Klessig said, “I know we’re at that lean time of year where funds are low for operating expenses. The pantry is doing fine. I know typically things will pick up as the season progresses.

“I would encourage the community to remember, during this season, that we need food for the shelves, we need cash for operating expenses. ... We do the best we can to fill a need. We always need resources.”

He said that nonprofit organizations often have to “roll with the punches,” especially as need grows among the people food share serves.

Barton also refuses to give in to despair about their setbacks.

“When I’m asked if food share is in danger, that thought never crosses my mind,” Barton said. “I can’t let it cross my mind.”

The people she serves at food share require that she keep her optimism.

“It’s hard for me when I see somebody who could be my son walking through here, it breaks my heart,” Barton said. “For the elderly that are coming through here, that could be my mom or my dad on a fixed income, and they have no choice. I thank God we’re here for them.”

Upcoming fundraising events for Florence Food Share include the 17th annual Food Share Pounding on Saturday, Nov. 18, at Grocery Outlet, 2066 Highway 101.

The 22nd annual Empty Bowls Fundraiser will be held Friday through Saturday, Dec. 1 to 3, at the Florence Events Center, 715 Quince Street.

For more information or to inquire about volunteering or donating, visit florencefoodshare.org.

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