Keeping SW Hope alive
Just as there are times for sowing and times for reaping, there are times for giving and times right after the holidays when giving gets downgraded.
There are as many reasons for the surge in charitable donations during December - holiday spirit and year-end tax strategies, to name two - as there are reasons for the steep decline in charity after Jan. 1.
Regardless of the reasons for it, the decline is very real. Which is why Southwest Hope returns for its 13th year on March 6. "Since 2007, the SW Hope community food drive has aimed to combat the sharp decline in giving that occurs after the New Year," according to its website.
Dana Guterman at Neighborhood House shared in an email with the Southwest Connection how they cope with the decline in food donations, "We plan for the drop in donations each year, and have to purchase more canned and dry goods after donations from the holiday-season boom have been given out to clients. We also have drives going on all year long with community partners, including churches, synagogues, mosques, schools and organizations like Portland Food Project. These are scheduled at regular intervals throughout the year to ensure we can continually bring in donations."
But the major effort is Southwest Hope. The distinctive four-foot-tall blue collection barrels are in the stores, schools and churches from the beginning of March until April 14. That the drive's timeline coincides with Lent is not a coincidence. In 2006, Patty Campbell-Schmidt, who was then the pastor at St. Andrew's Presbyterian, launched the food drive with other local faith leaders and Neighborhood House.
Some round numbers show how SW Hope has grown over the years. In 2007 almost $11,000 was raised. Last year that amount was $47,000. Food-wise, in 2014 (the first year for which there are food numbers) just over 5,000 pounds of food were donated. Last year that number was just under 15,000 pounds of food.
All the food that's donated or purchased with cash donations goes through a food pantry Neighborhood House has been running out of its offices on Southwest Capitol Highway since 1981. Today that food pantry has expanded and moved from the Neighborhood House offices to where the Head Start school used to be
at 3445 S.W. Moss St., right across from Marco's Restaurant.
According to the manager of the food pantry, Elizabeth LaPlante, what's driving the demand for food these days is a result of the housing crunch. Rents in Portland have risen percent since 2010, according to Bloomberg. "In this area, the housing thing is huge. The more income that goes for rent, the less there is for food. People are taking the food money and using it for rent. Food pantries across this area have really been hit hard."
She says the SW Hope food drive is just part of the plan for the future of feeding people from the pantry on SW Moss. Neighborhood House is in the planning stages for construction of a much larger facility on the site, one which will include more space to store food donations, a walk-in cooler and freezer, a waiting area for 40 to 50 clients and upstairs from the pantry there will be apartments for disabled veterans.
LaPlante has been running the food pantry for the last three and a half years. She talks about the operation with the insight you'd expect from a seasoned pro in the grocery business.
"Think of what people get used to eating in Siberia versus Kenya." she says when asked about meeting the diverse food needs of clients who come from all over the globe.
"All the fresh produce we get from our local gardeners and the community gardens really helps. We have plenty of Joe Americanos who grew up two blocks down the road but we also have a lot of immigrants. Specifically, seniors from mainland China, senior Russians - well actually people from the old Soviet Union who speak Russian - and lots of African refugee families. And they all really want fresh produce," she says. Languages spoken at the pantry include Swahili, Somali, Russian and Mandarin. LaPlante speaks English and Spanish. "But we do okay with on-line translator tools and lots of hand signals," she said, gesturing broadly.
Like any savvy grocer, "We go out of our way to find people food they can use. It's a shopping-style pantry so people can choose what they want. You go to a lot of other pantries and they're like 'Here, take this box. Hope you can use some of it,'" she said.
She continues, "Here's an example: If you're kosher or halal and there's no meat available that's been certified we'll go in the back and see if we have any fish. Some of our halal customers are ok with chicken, but others, no way, it has to be halal-slaughtered or it has to be fish or nothing."
And if they're out of fish, "We let them take some extra dried, canned beef," LaPlante admits.
(Halal refers to food which is allowed under traditional Islamic law while kosher describes food satisfying the resuirememtns of Jewish law.
LaPlante said she understands why a lot of donors prefer to donate food to a food drive rather than cash. (SW Hope figures that every dollar donated can purchase four pounds of food.) "Cash donations are huge. Look at these shelves. You'll see lot of cases of one thing. That's from the Oregon Food Bank and in many cases that's from the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) and it's free. which is great but it's the same thing all the time,"said LaPlante.
With cash comes variety. "The food pantry of the 1980s had the stereotype of government cheese and canned green beans being all that was available. We still have some of that but we want to be as healthy a pantry as we can and promote client choice."
LaPlante says it's all about creating a positive experience for her clients. "We are just better than a lot of the other food pantries both in the welcome we prove and how deeply we respect people and treat them with respect and how deeply the volunteer group that I have models that."
And there's always SW Hope. "One of the great things that SW Hope does is it gets people buying the stuff they really like and donating it. Like a can of Amy's Soup, so someone gets to try a really nice soup.
"It's also great for the hygeine products donated. We also always, always, always need tooth brushes and baby and adult diapers," she added.
For more information on SW Hope evetns including the SW Hope 5K in Gabriel Park on Saturday April 6, see: www.nhpdx.org