I reach into the hall closet and pull out a lime green bag, bulging with cans and boxes of non-perishable food. Over the past two months, I have added a can of fruit or a box of pasta after every shopping trip. The once empty bag is heavy with food to be picked up by my neighborhood coordinator from the Thurston County Food Project.

It’s as easy as that. All I have to do is set my bag out at my front door on pickup day, and my area coordinator picks it up, leaving a replacement bag for me to use over the next two months. Then, my coordinator makes his way to the Thurston County Food Bank.

Andrew Poultridge, my neighborhood coordinator, is also the vice president of the Thurston County Food Project’s board. The board is a new addition to the organization’s almost decade long history, since they recently gained their non-profit status in November of 2018. “That way we can ensure the project continues long after we aren’t around,” says MaryBeth Cline, president and co-creator of the Thurston County Food Project.

MaryBeth and her husband Don started the Thurston County Food Project after learning about the original parent project, the Ashland Food Project, during a visit with friends in Oregon in 2009. They brought the idea back to Olympia, and by April 2010, with support of their neighborhood association, CRANA, they held their first pickup. After nine years of successful pickups, 13 communities now participate in the project, across Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, and unincorporated areas of Thurston County.

Thurston County Food Project Pickup
On the second Saturday of every even month, I hang the green bag of non-perishable food on my door handle. With just a few minutes of effort, I am able to help my community. Photo credit: Holly Reed

When Andrew picks up my bag, he puts it in the back of his Honda along with about 15 other bags that he has collected from the porches and door handles of other neighbors that have registered to be a part of the program. Then he takes it to the Thurston County Food Bank warehouse, hoisting each bag from his car to a cart.

The direct delivery to the food bank warehouse is another recent change. The grassroots project has grown, almost exclusively through word of mouth. With such success, they have outgrown their original sorting location at an area school parking lot.

Though the project has expanded, it still holds true to its three original goals. The project is a completely independent organization from the Thurston County Food Bank, but one of their goals is to provide a consistent supply of food to the food bank. Each pickup also provides an opportunity to help strengthen relationships between neighbors, one of their other goals. As the first green bag project in Washington, they have also served as a food project model for other neighborhood communities which are growing across the state. Currently, there are several other communities growing their projects in Clark County, Bellingham, Sammamish, and Issaquah.

Thurston County Food Project Volunteers
The Cruz family coordinates and transports the green bags for their neighborhood. They stay and help transfer the food from the green bags to banana boxes for storage in the warehouse. Photo credit: Holly Reed

When Andrew wheels in the cart, Denise Pantalis, CRANA president, stands at the door directing incoming drop offs and counting the number of bags delivered from each neighborhood. Andrew unloads the bags onto a table labeled “South Capitol.” Then he, along with other volunteers who are already at the warehouse, begins unloading the food from the individual bags, placing it in sturdy cardboard banana boxes, which the food bank staff uses to keep everything organized. I watch the food from my bag get sorted into the first box.

Once the box is filled, Andrew stacks it with other boxes that have been packed up onto a pallet. Throughout the morning, more and more green bags arrive with area coordinators. Some coordinators stay to help, others simply stop by to drop off. More and more people filter in to help with the sorting. Some of the sorting volunteers are just toddlers, their parents set the bags on the floor, so they too can help sort into boxes. Of all the volunteers, the toddlers take the job most seriously.

The pallet begins to fill up with boxes. Once it gets five boxes high, it’s wheeled into the warehouse where it will become part of the thousands of pounds of food waiting to make its way to distribution sites around Thurston county.

Thurston County Food Project Young Helpers
Karen Reddick’s children join her to help sort. Even the youngest helpers make a difference. Photo credit: Holly Reed

It all happens in less than three hours: the pickups, the drop offs, and the sorting. In that time, 5,914 pounds of food is collected, enough for 6224 meals to feed people experiencing hunger in our area. In two months, the second Saturday of the next even month, it will all start again. It’s that easy.

“That’s what we wanted to do,” says MaryBeth. “We wanted it to be easy to be involved, with as little or as much commitment as people want to give.” The food project has a number of ways for people to help: from simply placing a bag of food on your doorstep every two months, collecting and dropping off green bags and neighborhood coordination, sorting food at the warehouse, or helping with other important skills like grant writing or web design.

“There are so many possibilities to help,” she adds. The project relies solely on volunteers, keeping operating costs low, monetary donations to the project help pay for more reusable green bags and liability insurance to keep the project going.

Last year, the Thurston County Food Project, collected over 39,250 pounds of food to provide more than 35,400 meals to donate to the food bank. Pickups are always the second Saturday of every even month. The donations help the food bank offer variety and meet unique dietary needs of food bank customers.

In the coming months, Thurston County Food Project plans to give their website some much needed updates. Until then, the best way to contact them is through their email address, tcfoodproject@gmail.com.

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