Residents bundled up in hats and scarves begin to gather in front of the Oregon-Brooklyn Food Pantry an hour before it opens on a freezing January day.
A line of about 35 people forms by the time it opens at 3 p.m., and more arrive to wait in the cold and snow.
With no space to wait inside, the 1,200-square-foot warehouse on Union Road is not equipped to serve the number of people it does because need was lesser 10 years ago, when the space was donated by Ed and Charlene Hefty.
Pantry leaders are “very grateful” for the facility, but the nonprofit organization’s duties and demands exceed its current space, said Kelly Kornaus, pantry volunteer and longtime Oregon resident. From crammed freezers to a lack of climate control or boxes for pickups, it’s an often uncomfortable existence for both volunteers and families served.
“We just want to have enough space for people to come in and shop and feel welcomed,” Kornaus said.
The pantry committee, made up of about a dozen volunteers from local churches and the community, publicly announced in December it was searching for a new facility. It’s hoping to find a subsidized location or to have it donated by a benefactor as its current space was.
“Ideal” attributes for a new home are posted on the pantry’s website, and a larger space and adequate temperature control are at the top of the wish list.
Big demand, little space
The main reason the space is no longer adequate is that need has increased by 58 percent over the past 10 years, according to statistics provided by the pantry. The pantry now serves an average of 130 families each month, or around 500 people.
Its contents, in both amount and assortment, are fluid because it relies on food and monetary donations, said pantry director Linda Fuller. And with little room to store goods from occasional larger donations, like drives, it can run out of food quickly.
“It’s a never-ending cycle,” Kornaus noted.
With a new space, pantry leaders hope they’d be able to better accommodate those large donations, which often come around the holiday season.
During those times, storage space can be maxed out, especially leading up to the one-day-a-month pantry pickup is available. A quick scan of the facility last Thursday revealed cans and boxed foods crammed into every nook and cranny, with 8-foot-tall shelves for storage in the rear and fold-out banquet tables displaying food for pickup in the front.
The pantry has two standing freezers and one refrigerator-freezer. When pickup days near, they’re often packed tightly, mostly with frozen meats, and sometimes don’t have enough room for deliveries of additional temperature-sensitive foods.
But many of the supplies will be depleted and need to be refilled after pickup day, Kornaus said.
“Space limitations are not the result of too many donations but of having too little space to store them,” Kornaus wrote in an email to the Observer. “We need these large donations because they don’t come very often.”
An already tight space gets tighter when adding the necessary volunteers to accommodate guests at the pantry.
About 14 volunteers came for the first shift at 2:45 p.m. last Thursday and seven for the later shift, which goes until 7 p.m. Other volunteers come with their own vehicles to pick up food to deliver to people who are shut into their homes.
The amount of people the Oregon-Brooklyn pantry is able to serve was a big surprise to another area pantry director, Karen Fletcher of Verona.
Verona’s pantry, which is 300 feet larger, serves about 180 families a month, but it is open three times a week and has already begun working on an expansion to double its space.
“How can they serve that many households at one time?” Fletcher asked of the Oregon-Brooklyn pantry. “That’s hard to fathom.”
Not just small
It’s clear some of the pantry’s setup creates efficiency and usability problems.
For example, the current registration space is a table with two white plastic patio chairs near the large door that opens up the front of the warehouse. Kornaus said they aim to offer more privacy for guests with the opportunity to have a new facility.
And climate control is not efficient.
The facility does have heat, but it lacks any sort of air conditioning. Both cold and heat can be a problem, though, as the large warehouse door is open for loading purposes and the smaller entrance door next to it has to stay open for hours during pantry pickup times.
During the winter, volunteers come bundled in hats and mittens and stay bundled throughout their shift.
Longtime volunteer and 17-year Oregon resident Rodger Mueller knows that as well as anyone.
“We’ve got great air-conditioning in the winter, and great heat in the summer,” he says with a smile.
That’s not just an issue with comfort, but also for food safety, Kornaus said. Last Thursday, the thermostat read 49 degrees.
Keeping the door open also means volunteers frequently have to wipe off snow and condensation that accumulates on items. But the space doesn’t have windows, so when the door isn’t open, its interior is dimly lit.
Pantry leaders would like to get access to a space that has a waiting room, or at least one that isn’t directly in front of doors to help remedy temperature issues.
Other desired attributes include a bathroom facility, parking and loading space and access, no-stairs access (to accommodate those with disabilities) and an office space.
The Oregon-Brooklyn pantry aims to operate as low-budget as it can in order to optimize food items for guests, Fuller said. If they do not have the necessary inventory to provide guests, they must purchase the rest.
“We try to have constancy in what’s provided each month,” Fuller said. “If we don’t get a lot of it donated, then we have to buy it.”
Though it’s a non-profit, like a business it still has operational costs such as utilities, plowing and general upkeep, Kornaus noted.
That leaves little room for some useful technology that help keep things running well, like an Internet connection.
And while Verona’s pantry, for example, is able to offer shopping carts for guests to gather food and paper bags and a box for them to take food home in, the Oregon-Brooklyn guests need to bring a laundry basket to gather food, which they cart around on red wagons.
While pantry leaders, who are volunteers themselves, remain thankful for the donations they receive and additional volunteers who help out, they feel a new facility would greatly improve services for community members.