written by Jennifer Cossey
It is an understatement to say that Rachel Bristol is passionate about her work. Vigor, pride and frustration are Bristol’s constant companions after twenty years as chief executive officer for the Oregon Food Bank. Her deep concern for the people of Oregon who struggle to feed themselves and their families is palpable and her enthusiasm to bring change is contagious.
Bristol, 55, grew up in Beaverton and was raised in a family committed to community involvement and service. “I grew up with the idea that you don’t ever waste anything, and even though you don’t necessarily have much, you share what you have,” she says. With those core values, Bristol left for college to seek a degree in community service and public affairs from the University of Oregon. After graduating in 1982, at the height of a recession, Bristol found herself in the overpopulated land of the educated and unemployed. She worked odd jobs to get by until she fought her way into a volunteer position at the statewide food organization, Oregon Food Share. Oregon Food Share later merged with another local organization and became Oregon Food Bank. In 1990, Bristol was named executive director and has stayed in that post, helping to feed Oregon’s hungry and working to develop the food bank into a lifeline for millions of Oregon’s low- or no-income residents.
The Oregon Food Bank has grown exponentially in the last ten years, and while Bristol would rather see it contract, the food bank will continue to expand to meet the needs of a ballooning population in need. “In my heart of hearts, I don’t want it to grow,” she says. “I know we are going to have to face what is happening with federal and state budget cuts. The demand is going to rise.”
The Oregon Food Bank is beginning strategy sessions to plan its growth for the next five years. Amidst the high unemployment of a sluggish economy, need will almost certainly increase. “This year we distributed a record amount of food, probably between 43 and 45 million pounds, just through the food bank.”
Seeing people struggle every day can be a challenge for one’s morale, but Bristol, though deeply troubled by the hunger in her state, stays perpetually positive. She is inspired daily by her staff, who bring creativity and passion to their work. Her enthusiasm suffuses the community, which shows its support through donations and other activities. One capstone event for the food bank is the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, which takes place in July with nearly 100 acts. Last year alone, featured performers included Lucinda Williams, Buddy Guy, Maceo Parker, The Rebirth Brass Band and Bobby Radcliff. Over the past five years, average annual donations for the event have been $600,000 and 100,000 pounds of food. Initial figures suggest that this year’s event raised close to $750,000 and 110,000 pounds of food.
“I am totally energized by the community,” says Bristol. “This work brings people together. There are so many trying to change things. It gives me so much hope. Hope is always there.”
For Bristol, there is little separation between work and home, so personal time becomes important. She and her husband, Jim Abrahamson, (who manages low-income energy assistance programs) live in Sellwood. There she tends to her strawberries and other fruit when time allows. “My garden is my sanctuary,” she confesses.
Bristol has helped build her organization into the local food bank for Portland and a network of nineteen food banks throughout the state, which, in turn, support 947 partner agencies, feeding more than 240,000 hungry people every month.
As much as she does, as much as the food bank network provides, there is always more that needs to be done. “We really need to take a look at food policy in this country,” Bristol acknowledges. “We are working off of old systems that are leaving more and more people behind in terms of the types of jobs and wages that they need to live. There is still a lot we can do in looking at our food policies at a local level, at a state level and at the national level. ”
For Bristol, her staff at the Oregon Food Bank and the community, teaching people how to garden, educating them about nutrition and helping them find jobs are a few of the ways change is taking root. It was never about a handout. “When I accepted the job of executive director, I really felt strongly that we are never going to end hunger with charity alone and we need to really look at the root causes of hunger and work towards public policies that will help prevent it.
Regional Food Banks of Oregon
The Oregon Food Bank Network serves a large geographic area that covers diverse urban and rural communities. Each presents challenges and opportunities for organizations that serve people with low incomes. A statewide network ensures efficient and equitable distribution across Oregon and Clark County, Washington.
Making the difference
OFB distributes food to twenty regional food banks, which, in turn, distribute food to 947 local agencies and programs.
The OFB Network serves an average of 240,000 hungry people each month.
The Oregon Food Bank Network serves a large geographic area that covers diverse urban and rural communities.
Each presents challenges and opportunities for organizations that serve people with low incomes. A statewide network ensures efficient and equitable distribution across Oregon and Clark County, Washington.
In 2009-10, volunteers contributed 93,000 hours, the equivalent of 45 full-time employees.
The OFB Network moved a record 72 million pounds of food in 2010.
All Hands on Deck
Donate time, food or money to help fellow Oregonians
Volunteering is a national pastime that has real rewards for everyone involved. The food bank has positions in which volunteers can contribute individually or as a family.
Canned meats, box meals and peanut butter are the most sought foods.
Attend the fundraising gala dinner 6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 15, at Oregon Food Bank’s headquarters in northeast Portland.
Sign up to give any amount to the food bank on a monthly basis.
1859 will donate $10 to the Oregon Food Bank for any new subscription at 1859magazine.com/foodbank.
Oregon Food Bank