About 30 people in the Gorge Food Security Coalition met Tuesday at FISH Food Bank in Hood River to sign onto a collaborative effort that has been months in the making.

“When we look at the health of our population, food is medicine, so making sure our community as a whole has equal access and use of healthy, high quality food is vital,” said Suzanne Cross, project manager with Columbia Gorge Health Council.

“That’s why I think this coalition is really exciting, because there are so many sectors of the community represented here.”

The Health Council, like the food coalition, is a collection of people from varied local organizations working on health care access in the region.

Food Coalition co-conveners Mark Thomas of Hood River and Ken Bailey of The Dalles welcomed the group, and acknowledged the work of program manager Liz Overhausen and Jim Jakes of Oregon Solutions, based at Portland State University.

“The first couple of months will be a lot of action planning and prioritizing and trying to continue to make sure we have all the right people at the table,” Oberhausen said. “We have a really amazing coalition and want to continue to reach out.”

The coalition was awarded a $20,000 grant through the Wy’East Fund and the Taylor and Alice Alexander Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation to fund a program manager to staff the coalition and help advance their objectives over the coming year.

Gorge Grown Food Network will serve as “the backbone of coordination and organization.”

“Everyone involved is already actively engaged, so we will try to be more action oriented than meeting oriented,” she said.

“A lot of it is a better recognition in the community, myself included, that there is a real need,” said Bailey, owner of Orchard View Farms. “I think there’s food insecurity issues out there but nobody’s gotten totally excited about it. This coalition is about working together and learning what each other is doing and build on that and do a lot better job.”

Thomas, spoke of the challenging “trajectory” of the project: “How do we land this plane, is it specific enough, and we trusted in Jim and Liz, and it’s brought us to that point.

“Thank you for trusting in the process and sticking with it,” said Thomas, director of Mission Integration and Spiritual Care at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital.

Bailey acknowledged Providence for coming up with the matching grant. “We very much appreciate Providence stepping forward,” he said.

He said, “It’s been a question we’ve heard, ‘How did everyone get together on this?’ and even though so many groups were involved, everyone was looking forward to working together to improve, rather than ‘are you stepping on my toes?’ and worrying about their own organization.”

Cross said, “This is the first time health care sat down with growers and food service organizations and social service and schools, and all focused around food, with the focus on healthy, high quality food and not just staples. We’re setting the bar higher.”

In March, representatives from over two dozen agencies and political offices met in The Dalles with a charge from the governor’s office: to form a coalition to decrease hunger and increase access to quality food in the Columbia River Gorge.

On Tuesday, they had lunch in the community room at FISH and signed the coalition agreement at a long table, with the food bank community garden just out the window.

Over the coming year, the group will lay the groundwork to strengthen the food system from producer to consumer, addressing gaps and barriers to ensuring access to healthy food to everyone in the gorge.

Gov. Kate Brown designated the challenge as an Oregon Solutions project, the request of a growing coalition of community members who were alarmed at the rates of hunger, which have been uncovered in the gorge over the past few years.

The mission of Oregon Solutions is “to develop sustainable solutions to community-based problems that support economic, environmental, and community objectives and are built through the collaborative efforts of businesses, government, and non-profit organizations.”

This year the agencies have worked to identify gaps in the food system and set priorities to reduce food insecurity in the region, formalize the creation of the Food Security Coalition, and their individual and collective commitments to collective activities to reduce hunger.

“This coalition is another powerful example of the Oregon Way, an approach to public service that prioritizes communication, accountability, and pragmatism,” Brown told the coalition in a letter read to the group by Nate Stice of her office.

The letter thanked co-conveners Bailey and Thomas “for their leadership,” and told the coalition, “your tremendous work to identify gaps in local food systems will ensure that every resource gathered and hour labored will be effectively and efficiently used.

“I am confident that the work group structure you’ve created will similarly maximize your collective ability to incite positive change.”

Oberhausen said, “We are still fleshing out the coalition structure, but the decision was made to proceed in work groups.”

One will do an inventory of the food system infrastructure, including growers and food banks.

“One issue that has come up repeatedly is cold storage availability and distribution routes, and meat processing, and if we were able to develop them and fill in the gaps, we would be much better able to serve the region.”

Another group is outreach and engagement.

“We did not have as much farmer engagement as we’d like during the summer, so it’s about both the recipients and future partners such as grocers, distributors, producers, and those who are experiencing food insecurity, who can co-create ideas with us to make sure we’re not off-base with our solutions.

“The third group will look at direct services to clients, such as nutrition and education classes,” Oberhausen said.

Jakes said, “Food systems are really complex and for people experiencing food insecurity, a lot of times that’s a symptom of poverty, and part of what I think makes this coalition really special is you have a whole bunch of people who work very hard helping get food to the hungry, a whole bunch of people who work very hard to improve the strength and resiliency of the food system in the five-county gorge.”

Jakes added that “a special twist” is the prevalence of health system providers involved, citing Gorge Health Council, Mid-Columbia Medical Center, Providence, Skyline, and One Community Health (with clinics in The Dalles and Hood River).

“It’s exciting to have been a part of it,” said John Huffman, MCMC outreach coordinator. “It fits in so nicely with the work that MCMC, Providence, One Community, and all of our partners are doing.

“We are studying stakeholder health, where we are looking at the total health model that Providence and others have embarked on, heading down that road to look at the whole need and not just the symptoms of the problem, when someone comes into our clinics, and food insecurity is one of those things, along with housing and insecurity and transportation access to health care.”

“I think everyone wants to do the right thing,” said Jeannie Vieira, CEO of Providence Hood River. “Mark (Thomas) made a joke about trying to solve world hunger, but it is exactly that, and no one person has the capacity given the gravity of the need, but there are a lot of really compassionate people with a lot of good interests, and various amounts of resources and when they’re pulling together a lot more can be done as a community.”

The catalyst for the current effort was a 2015 survey conducted by the Columbia Gorge Health Council and One Community Health which sought to learn more about food insecurity in the gorge.

The local survey had more than 2,000 responses, demonstrating that one in three area residents worry about running out of food, and one in five miss meals.

Upon learning the magnitude of the problem, community organizations throughout the gorge joined together.

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