Photo Credit: COLUMBIA PACIFIC FOOD BANK PHOTO - Volunteers with Columbia Pacific Food Bank load a truck with food bags. The food bank distrubutes more than 700,000 pounds of food a year to the county's residents in need.

At 4 p.m. on a Monday in August, 80-year-old Warren resident Richard Scherer is busy tending to his potato crops. He plants each potato seed by hand, measuring out the right amount of fertilizer and peat moss.

With each spud, Scherer is helping his local food bank feed people in need throughout Columbia County. Scherer donates more than 1,500 pounds of potatoes to the Columbia Pacific Food Bank each year.

The crops are putting the food bank in step with a nationwide effort to incorporate healthier food into food banks.

The food bank estimates it receives 22 percent of its food from community donations. Most of the donations are farm fresh produce, Casey Wheeler, executive director of the food bank, explained.

“Right now we’re getting a lot of produce,” Wheeler said. “A lot of people are donating from their farms.” Residents like Scherer have started growing food specifically for the food bank. Now, deliveries of kale, broccoli, carrots, potatoes and squash are not uncommon.

“A woman asked if she could drop off some zucchini,” Wheeler recalled. “She showed up with (boxes) full from her garden.”

The donations have helped the food bank keep up with increased demand over the past five years. Despite signs of economic recovery, Wheeler suspects job losses in the county have led more families to seek free food resources.

Last year, the food bank handed out more than 12,000 food boxes with more than 700,000 pounds of food, according to its records.

“What we’re seeing is more and more working families coming in for food,” Wheeler said. Columbia County’s homeless population also contributes heavily to the demand on local food banks.

Feeding America, a nationwide hunger relief charity, indicates about 14 percent of Columbia County residents face food insecurity and 63 percent of those residents fall below the poverty level.

Through Healthy Food Bank Hub, Feeding America is leading efforts to educate food providers and recipients about a healthy diet. The organization is also pushing for increased access to foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Similarly, Oregon Food Bank was recently awarded for its Seed to Supper classes, which educate low-income residents about how to grow their own food on a budget.

Farm donations like Scherer’s help to ensure residents in need get fresh produce on a regular basis. For many households, fruits and vegetables make up the highest cost of the grocery bill.

For Scherer, maintaining a potato farm isn’t a source of income, it’s an altruistic duty.

“This whole donation program originated from my religious background,” Scherer explained. “I love to grow things. I believe that each person should have some kind of missionary work to do, and this is what my work turned out to be, was feeding people.”

He’s able to afford the cost of the crops through a tax break that allows him to deduct a dollar for every pound he donates, as long as his household income does not exceed a certain level.

The other potatoes he grows feed him and his wife, along with neighbors and fellow farmers with crops to trade.

“The crummy food that’s out in the world today is not good for people. It’s industrialized farm food,” Scherer said.

Aside from food donations, Columbia Pacific Food Bank relies on distributions from Oregon Food Bank twice a month, as well as grants and corporate donations, like the $2,000 it just received from the U.S. Bank Foundation.

Wheeler said the food bank is in healthy financial standing, but he hopes to see the organization reach its goal of moving to a bigger facility with access to a commercial kitchen. The kitchen will allow the food bank to offer food classes on everything from healthy eating habits to food preservation.

Residents don’t have to be farmers to donate to the food bank. Wheeler emphasizes that a $10 donation equates to 33 meals.

“Our goal is to eliminate hunger in Columbia County,” Wheeler said. “Unfortunately, there’s always a need.”

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