Holly Kesecker stocks produce on a shelf Wednesday in the Philomath Community Gleaners section of the PCS building. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The relationship works.

Individuals and families struggling with food insecurity become members of an organization to get through challenging times. In return, they put in volunteer hours to help the organization function effectively.

That’s the basic premise behind a gleaners program, including the one in Philomath.

“I always like to say, ‘We don’t just feed people’s bodies, we feed their souls’ because a lot of people that come here are here because they need help,” said Patty Nobles, Philomath Community Gleaners program manager. “We try to make this as friendly of an environment as possible and a safe place because for some of these people, we’re their only outlet.”

Food-assistance programs around the state and nation have reported huge numbers in recent months and the Philomath’s gleaners program is no exception.

“Right now, we have 458 members,” said Nobles, who has been involved with Philomath Community Gleaners since 2011. “Compared to January of last year, we had only 185. It jumped so fast that by August, we were at 480.”

The Philomath Community Gleaners program falls under the umbrella of Philomath Community Services and partners with Linn Benton Food Share. Nobles said the gleaners do not distribute food in the same manner as the food bank. Members can visit weekly and pick up food in an environment that resembles grocery store shopping.

“Gleaning is a membership-based organization,” Nobles said. “We’re not an emergency food box … we’re not a food pantry. The people that come here are members and in order to be a part of this, you’re classified as either an adoptee or a gleaner.”

PHILOMATH COMMUNITY GLEANERS
To sign up: For those interested in Philomath Community Gleaners, call Program Manager Patty Nobles at 541-829-3980 and leave a message. Individuals and families can also sign up on Mondays (9 a.m.-4 p.m.) or Saturdays (7 a.m.-4:30 p.m.).
Information: Click here to reach the gleaners’ page on the PCS website.
Video: Click here to view a video about Philomath Community Gleaners.

Gleaners must have at least one person in their home that can volunteer a minimum number of hours. Currently, gleaners are required to put in five hours of volunteers because it’s the slow winter season. In March, the hour requirement will go up to seven, Nobles said.

Adoptees fit into the category of those who are unable to put in volunteer hours. Among those in the Philomath organization are 10 homebound adoptees that receive deliveries.

“We have a lot more gleaners than adoptees,” Nobles said. “We take care of our adoptees. Let’s say someone breaks their leg and they’re a gleaner — we would put them on adoptee status until they felt like they could help again.”

Household eligibility for gleaners is set at 300% of the federal poverty standard. The latest guidelines, for example, show that a family of four would be eligible if household income is equal to or less than $83,250. For a household of two, it’s $54,930.

“The majority of people that come in here are on some type of fixed income, so this program is very important,” Nobles said. “COVID money, the last I heard, there is no more so come the first of January, those emergency SNAP benefits are gone. Those really help people but there’s no money to do it.”

The gleaners organization thrives completely on volunteer power with no paid employees. This past year, there were limited opportunities out in the fields.

“It was such a mess with the weather that we didn’t get to do a lot of gleans,” Nobles said. “A lot of stuff wasn’t able to produce so that really put a hit on us as far as that goes.”

The gleaners have partnerships with various farms.

“Thank goodness for Gathering Together (Farm) because that keeps us in produce all year long in here,” Nobles said. “And we work with OSU, they have test farms and they are very generous to the gleaners. We go and pick a lot of stuff from the test farms.”

Nobles said the types of food available to gleaners and adoptees go well beyond only produce.

“We get a lot of meat and it’s canned goods and we have a pasta rack that’s just pasta,” she said. “We have refrigerated items because we get a lot of deli items.”

Another difference between gleaners and the food bank is the types of items that can be distributed.

“For example, we pick up from Kentucky Fried Chicken … and we’re setting up a program with the McDonald’s in Philomath, where we’ll be picking up from them once a week,” Nobles said. “So we can take restaurant food whereas the food bank cannot because they’re USDA-funded.”

Nobles said a “really big donor” contributes food and household items each week. Philomath serves as a clearinghouse for those contributions for four other gleaning groups in Benton County — Lebanon, Harrisburg, Alsea and Monroe.

“We bring in 18 pallets and we split it up based on their size,” Nobles said. “So they’re getting food and we don’t have to pay anything from this big donor. We just have to pay to rent the truck from OSU to get our stuff in.”

The volunteers work hard to unload the food when it arrives.

“Thank goodness for Philomath Rentals because they have generously let us use their forklift if it’s available,” she said. “It makes it so much faster instead of it just being a fire brigade to get stuff off the truck.”

There are times when gleaners and adoptees might end up with a case of granola bars. Those are the types of items that need to be moved fast.

“Granola bars are one of those items that you can’t keep on a shelf for longer than the (expiration) date because the nuts and stuff will start to go rancid so we will put them out by the case,” Nobles said. “For parents with four or five kids, a case of granola bars is good because there are your snacks.”

Nobles said it’s those little things that can make a difference when it comes to food in the fridge or pantry. Some of the more common items, however, can be tough to get their hands on.

“I can’t get peanut butter or tuna here at all, or eggs — oh my goodness, eggs are $3 a dozen and we can’t afford to put eggs out,” Nobles said. “That was something we always could afford (in the past).”

The gleaners have a specific amount of money that is spent on food and with rising costs, it has not been easy. The organization receives some financial assistance through grants — the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians is a frequent contributor.

Linn Benton Food Share partners with 14 gleaning groups that are spread out in the two counties.

“Buying food from Linn Benton Food Share is often cheaper than what we can go to the store to get but sometimes they don’t have the food for us,” Nobles said.

Feeding America, a national hunger-relief organization, has contracts with the majority of the stores in the region. For the stores that contribute food, Feeding America in turn gets a tax credit.

“We are really lucky because we have a lot of pick-ups,” Nobles said, pausing to point out volunteers placing items on shelves that came in Wednesday morning from Safeway and First Alternative Co-Op. “That’s helpful and it feeds our people.”

The gleaners will share acceptable overflow items with food banks in Philomath and South Corvallis, as well as Strengthening Rural Families.

Oregon Food Bank partners with communities and organizations across the state and southwest Washington, including Linn Benton Food Share. The gleaners can request food but with the system strained, it can be difficult to see requests filled.

“What the food bank can order from Linn Benton Food Share, we cannot,” Nobles explained. “We get the bottom of what it is — but we’re grateful for what we get.”

For those who may want to donate products, Nobles said the best times to drop off items with the gleaners would be on Mondays (9 a.m.-4 p.m.) and Saturdays (7 a.m.-4:30 p.m.). There is also a collection barrel specifically for Philomath Community Gleaners at Dollar General (most of the other barrels seen around town are for items designated for the food bank).

“We just got so many people,” Nobles said about those significant increases in the number of members. “And I have a feeling it’s going to go up in January.”

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.