Sharing Food, Building Community

Food is the ingredient that binds us together.  — Author unknown

Paul Giancarlo remembers reading an article in the Ashland Daily Tidings, a few weeks after Christmas in 2009, about food bank “blues”: how shelves stand precipitously bare after the holiday food drives end. Explaining to his six-year-old twin boys that hunger does not rise and fall with the holidays, that some kids wake up hungry most days, Giancarlo asked them what they would do. The boys suggested going around the neighborhood and knocking on doors to ask for food donations. The next day, pulling a red wagon, they did exactly that. 

(See the short documentary, “The Green Bag Solution.”)

A few miles away, John Javna, unable to walk from an injured back, asked himself how he would show his gratitude if he recovered. A voice came into his head, Javna recollects. “Feed people,” it said. 

Soon, Giancarlo and his sons were making a habit of setting aside food every week and bringing it to the Ashland Emergency Food Bank. One morning, Giancarlo sent an email to 50 neighbors and friends asking if they would consider putting aside food, weekly, too. “Hunger is year-round and the food bank needs food,” his message began. He and his twins offered to pick up the food and deliver it to the food bank; 42 people wrote back and said “I’m in.”

Meanwhile, John Javna’s against-the-odds back surgery put him back on his feet. He started imagining a program like the one Giancarlo had started, but on a larger scale. The two learned about each other, talked by phone, joined forces — and collected 1,000 lbs. of food on their combined first run. “It was exhilarating,” Giancarlo said. 

Two years later their bi-monthly, neighbor-to-neighbor “food drive” was gathering 20,000 lbs. of food every two months. Today, the bi-monthly total exceeds 30,000 lbs. One quarter of Ashland families donate food regularly.

The idea, they insisted, was simple: to gather food and build community. 

Hunger knows few boundaries

The statistics on hunger in America are staggering. We live in the richest country in the world, yet one in seven are food insecure (defined as lacking consistent access to sustaining meals). In 2019, according to the USDA’s Household Food Insecurity in the United States report, more than 35 million people in the U.S. experienced hunger regularly, 10 million of these children. 

Food insecurity knows few boundaries. Every community in the country is home to families who face hunger, including rural and suburban communities. There are more than 200 food banks in the United States that serve more than 63,000 agencies providing meals or food to the public on a regular basis. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a decent portion of the food distributed, buying up surplus from farmers. Private donations, from companies, local businesses, and citizens fills in the rest.  

The same day we moved to Ashland three years ago, with four suitcases and two cats, a neighbor appeared at our door with a green, non-disposable tote bag emblazoned with the logo, “The Ashland Food Project | BUILDING COMMUNITY, SHARING FOOD.” 

Ashland hides its hunger well, I soon learned. Despite its relative affluence and the national lure of its nine-month Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one in five Ashland families are food insecure: seniors on a fixed income, single parent households, the working poor. Many do not qualify for federal nutrition programs and must rely on the local food bank and a network of small relief organizations for support.

When writing about the Rogue Valley Farm to School program — which provided fresh produce to Ashland’s food insecure children throughout the summer of ’20 pandemic — I discovered that 30 percent of Ashland’s hungry are children under 18.

I could imagine Paul Giancarlo’s twin six-year-olds saying, “We can’t let this happen.”

The Green Bag Solution

There is a Tanzanian proverb, “Little by little, a little becomes a lot.” Giancarlo and Javna figured that the best way to stock the Ashland Emergency Food Bank’s shelves was little-by-little, item-by-item, to make setting aside food for those who needed it a habit. 

They devised a schedule. Every two months — on the second Saturday of every even-numbered month — volunteers would pick up bags of healthy nonperishable food that neighbors left outside their front doors. 

And they developed a signature, the ubiquitous, non-throwaway green bags into which families collect food items over the course of the two months. When volunteers pick up the filled bags, they leave a new, fresh one behind. 

“It’s one thing to knock on people’s doors and say ‘Hi, we’ll be back in two months’ and have them remember that, to even take you seriously,” says Giancarlo.  “If you give them something that shows it’s official, they know you are coming back for it, it’s a contract, an agreement.” He calls it the “green bag solution.”

Determined to get the whole town involved, Giancarlo and Javna recruited neighborhood coordinators, now totaling more than 145, who pass on their enthusiasm for the project to their neighbors — and collect the filled green bags from doorsteps and deliver them to the Ashland Emergency Food Bank (AEFB).

Like most food banks nationwide, the Ashland Emergency Food Bank used to cycle from peak-to-trough, as the private donations from episodic food drives failed to complement the food funneled through the federal government and corporate food donation programs.

“It used to be that when we saw food flying off the shelves, we’d start to panic,” says former AEFB manager Pam Marsh. “Where is the food for next month going to come from?” 

Now the inventory is stable. Last year, I happened to make conversation with a young mother and her baby waiting in line to buy fresh greens at the weekly growers’ market near us. I’d been playing peek-a-boo with the toddler when I noticed that the mother paid for her purchase with SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). Cautiously, I asked if she ever used the food bank. “Yes ma’m,” she said. This past year has been real rough. It’s been one of the few things we could count on.”

Building community, across generations

When Giancarlo and Javna started, they had one, basic question: How do we get more food into food banks? Soon they grew a second mission. “It was about serving the people who were giving the food too,” says Javna. “Making it personal, making them part of something bigger than themselves.”

What they underestimated was the extent to which the project would engage Ashland’s young. In some families, the task of filling the green bags with food falls to children; their full bellies notwithstanding, they understand hunger. 

At the bimonthly drop-offs, you may see an eight-year-old working along an octogenarian, unpacking the green bags and stacking food bank shelves. Students from Ashland High School, required to contribute 100 hours of community service to graduate, are regulars. 

Sophia, John Javna’s daughter — who like Giancarlo’s twins grew up with the Ashland Food Project (and is now a college junior) — laughs at the stereotype that kids don’t care or, as she puts it, “community service is for nerds.”

“Everyone wants to help and everyone wants a sense of belonging. This gives them both,” Sophia says. “And it’s true and honest. You see the shelves being stocked, you hear the people shopping for food saying thank you, you know you contributed a part. It’s simple and it works.”

Now more than a decade old, the Ashland Food Project has spawned 45 look-alike neighborhood food donation programs in 11 states. On doorsteps as far apart as Vancouver Washington and Greensboro, North Carolina, green bags filled with food make their way into the community.