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COVID-19 pandemic brings groups together to address community food insecurity

OHSU-led Nutrition Oregon Campaign provides structure for Ontario, Oregon community to rally around a common cause
A semi with Oregon Food Bank on the side is parked, with two shade tents and boxes of food near it.
The eastern Oregon town of Ontario is providing emergency food distribution to address food insecurity issues, which have worsened due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy Lindsay Grosvenor)

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many cracks in society’s safety net systems. It’s also brought out some of the best of humanity. In one small eastern Oregon town, the pandemic has been the driving force to unite multiple organizations around a common community need: addressing the rising rates of food insecurity, or a lack of enough food for an active, healthy life.

Since 2018, Ontario has been a community “hub” of the Nutrition Oregon Campaign, working with the Nutrition Oregon Campaign to help end chronic disease risk in this and future generations. The OHSU Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness started the Nutrition Oregon Campaign in 2016 to address rising rates of chronic disease across the state.

The campaign is grounded in the science of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, or DOHaD, a field that explains how nutrition and toxic stress during pregnancy, lactation and early life create lifelong risk for developing chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The campaign works with community hubs across Oregon to develop DOHaD-informed approaches to address their unique community needs. For example, the Ontario hub decided to focus on food insecurity, with a goal of ensuring all Western Treasure Valley residents are 100% food secure by 2030.

During a recent virtual campaign planning meeting, the discussion focused on how the pandemic is creating more food insecurity among Ontario’s many vulnerable groups. Sheila Hiatt, branch manager for the Oregon Food Bank’s Southeast Oregon Services, mentioned she had funds for emergency food but was concerned about her capacity to purchase and distribute the food during the short time period required by a grant they had received. A conversation sprang up among the organizations on the call, and the idea of a pop-up emergency food distribution was suggested.

a man moves a pallette of food boxes
Community leaders were inspired to hold two distribution events after they came together through the OHSU-sponsored Nutrition Oregon Campaign. (Photo courtesy Lindsay Grosvenor)

The pop-ups' goals are to distribute food, get a feel for how much the pandemic has increased food insecurity, and use this as an opportunity to practice mass food distribution in case something like this needs to be done in Malheur County in the future. Along with food, information will be shared with community members about how they can continue to access emergency food assistance.

“We realized this was an ideal opportunity to join forces and see how we could tackle this together. It also provided an opportunity to bring the community together around our work with the Nutrition Oregon Campaign,” said Lindsay Grosvenor, R.D., the Ontario Nutrition Oregon Campaign hub liaison and a dietitian at Valley Family Health Center.

The group held a dry-run pop-up on Friday, May 29, and plan to have a larger event from 1 to 3 p.m. on Friday, June 19, at Beck-Kiwanis Park in Ontario. They anticipate distributing at least 200 food boxes at each event to individuals or families in need.

“The Nutrition Oregon Campaign hub is definitely the driving force in bringing this together,” said Grosvenor. “The OHSU Moore Institute has provided us with a neutral space to bring together groups with similar agendas and has given us the platform to really address this as a community in a way we would not have been able to do individually.”

Organizations including Valley Family Health Care, Oregon Department of Human Services, Malheur County Health Department/WIC, Malheur Council on Aging and Community Services, Malheur Education Service District, OSU Extension, and Oregon Child Development Coalition, all stepped up to help the Oregon Food Bank figure out the logistics, liability, staffing and marketing to ensure the people who need the food are able to get it.

“Ontario was our first supporter of the Nutrition Oregon Campaign. We’re thrilled to see how far they’ve come in organizing around community nutrition to improve long-term community health. They set a great example for communities across the state,” said Kent Thornburg, Ph.D., director of the OHSU Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness, and professor of medicine (cardiovascular medicine) in the OHSU School of Medicine.

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