Tigard’s Free Food Project has come a long way in just four years.
What started as a few car trips a month to bring food to friends and family has now grown into an official nonprofit organization with a permanent space of its own and a clientele that now reaches into the thousands each week. Operating out of the Tigard Grange off Southwest Pacific Highway, the Free Food Project now offers free food three times a week to anyone in need, and without any of the income or residency restrictions attached to other, more established programs.
“It went from the back of a Suburban to a 10-by-10 tent, to two 10-by-20 tents, to now we’re in a permanent structure, so it’s just continuously grown,” said founder and Tigard resident Amy Fiederowicz.
Fiederowicz helped start the Free Food Project in part because of a permanent disability stemming from a brain surgery and a connective tissue disorder. This robbed her of a career as an accountant and has left her unable to work in a traditional job. Not one to back down from a challenge, however, she started volunteering at Heart 2 Heart Farms, a working farm in Sherwood that also offers a food pantry. Eventually, she was able to bring back enough food from the farm to share with family and friends and it inspired her to expand that service as widely as possible.
Today, the Free Food Project sources roughly 7,000 pounds of food weekly from Imperfect Foods, a delivery service dedicated to reducing food waste that made its mark by salvaging “imperfect” or ugly fruits and vegetables that farms were unable to sell to supermarkets. In addition, another 2,000 pounds or more of mainly dry goods comes from Birch Community Services in Gresham. Other staples are donated by local grocery stores or individuals, while a team of roughly 30 volunteers gathers these supplies and brings them to Tigard for distribution.
“Our focus is actually on reducing food waste and educating people on what food expirations mean more than anything,” Fiederowicz said, adding that expiration dates on many products don’t necessarily mean the item is no longer usable.
They even are able to help out other food pantries and nonprofits, including Just Compassion, Free Hot Soup, a Portland group that serves meals to the homeless, Hillsboro-based Western Farm Workers Association and more.
The economic upheaval that came with the COVID-19 pandemic has also caused a significant increase in demand for the group’s services.
“According to some of our surveys prior to COVID, we were serving a couple hundred people a week,” she said. “Once we got to the height of COVID, we were serving up to 2,000 individuals a week. Now it’s slowed a little bit, but not very much.”
For Free Food Project guests, as Fiederowicz likes to call them, their services – and the personal touch behind them – can make a world of difference.
Tigard resident Carrie Collins, for example, showed up to receive food last June and stayed to learn more about how to navigate the complex and multi-layered system run by the state of Oregon to serve low income and homeless residents. Collins, her partner and her son, Emmit, were without stable housing at the time, but soon was able to solve that issue through advice – and food – provided by Fiederowicz and the Free Food Project.
“She actually connected me with a lot of the resources that helped me get out of the hole that we were in,” Collins said. “She was able to give me some good information on how to navigate things and she’s a wealth of information. It’s not just food, it’s so much more.”
With a constant need for new volunteers, Fiederowicz has to be both persistent and persuasive. It worked for Tigard resident Greg Bacon, who showed up to receive food two years ago and eventually decided to volunteer his time. Not only does he get food in return for his time, but he also gets a fair bit of exercise. It’s a good tradeoff, he says.
“It’s something to do and it’s for a good cause and I get more food than I can eat, so my neighbors, I can feed a bunch of them,” Bacon said. “It gives you a good physical workout, too. Just helping people, that’s what I like to do.”
Fiederowicz agrees. Whether it’s family or strangers, helping others is her mission.
“This allows me to feel like I have some provisions for my family, whereas I didn’t for a while there,” she said. “And another thing is I honestly love seeing when families come through and they get so excited. But the biggest thing for me is I have to show my kids that you can’t let life beat you down.”
For more information, visit freefood.org/l/free-food-project-at-tigard-grange-148.