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Philip Yates connected his community through food, helping to purchase, distribute, prepare and enjoy it together

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Philip Yates tends to the plants in the garden of his home in Talent.

Publisher’s note: Community Builder is a regular Q&A series that provides perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Philip Yates, Rogue Valley Farm to School Board Member.

Q: You worked at ACCESS to secure food for families in the Rogue Valley for many years. How did you end up getting involved in food provision and food insecurity issues?

Philip: I had a couple of careers before I got into social services. I was an electronics technician in England and then in Australia. While traveling through New Zealand, I met a beautiful American woman. Nancy was from Ashland; we get along We were together for a while when she had to suddenly leave to go back to Oregon because her father was very sick. She had fallen in love with me and I had to decide about the future. I called and asked Nancy to marry me over the phone. She said, ‘Yes, I will marry you, but you have to come here. I have already been to Australia. I want you to come here.’ It took me a while to get the correct visa. I came in 1980.

Q: So you came to a new county for a new life?

Philip: We were both looking for a new career, and Waldorf Education took us. We feel that this is what we should do. We return to England for our training. I became a Waldorf teacher and taught for seven years. It was the hardest job I’ve ever done in my life. I have a lot of respect for the people who teach, but it wasn’t me. Once again, I was left wondering what I should do.

There was a book called ‘What color is my parachute?’ I started going through that and figuring out what I should do. He seemed to be pointing me in the direction of social services. One of the exercises was to talk to someone from social services that you knew. Ben Benjamin was the director of the ACCESS nutrition program. I called Ben, who said, ‘Well, why don’t you go down and take a look at the warehouse? I am transitioning within the agency and my job is available.’ It happened quickly, but I had experience managing programs. I went in for an interview and Patty Claeys, the CEO, hired me.

Q: What was your first impression of the famine in Rogue Valley?

Philip: I found myself at work three days before Thanksgiving in 1991. I knew a little because I saw what Ben had been up to. I couldn’t understand at the time why there was famine in the United States. He had traveled to other places, such as Asia. I saw poverty firsthand with people begging on the streets, and there was none of that here.

Q: How did your perception change?

Philip: I gained a gradual understanding, through some painful moments, of what we were dealing with. Eventually, I discovered that we were dealing with malnutrition and not specifically hunger. In the 1990s, after I started ACCESS, the economy started to pick up. There was less unemployment, and suddenly, in 1996, many of the government programs were cut. People were supposed to have jobs and be able to make ends meet. But the reality was that most low-income people, even if they had a job, didn’t make enough money to pay all of their bills. If you are paying more than 30% of your income on housing, there is very little left for nutritious food. And many people were paying 50% of their income for housing. So the burden fell on nonprofits because government food programs had been cut.

Q: So nonprofits took over the government’s food programs?

Philip: 2001 was the peak year for food assistance. Americans in poverty increased by 8 million people, support for school meals was reduced, and food stamps were reduced by $23 million. Food banks had to find additional resources. Increasingly, the burden fell on nonprofits. Food programs in the Rogue Valley asked local foundations for support to purchase food. We all knew we had to find out what the root causes are. That was the real transition. We started the journey of trying to figure out where we would get more food, and food that was more nutritious.

Q: Where did the search for more nutritious foods take you?

Philip: We know that the most important time for nutrition is from birth to 3 years. If the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food programs were cut, we would have to provide nutritious food to young families. ACCESS built a kitchen called the Olsrud Family Nutrition Center in 2000. That gave us the opportunity to expand senior meals throughout Jackson County, in partnership with the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, and create new program opportunities.

Through Leightman Maxey and other foundations, the food community began to consider building a stronger food system. Not only the people who deliver food, but also the local farmers who produce food and transport it to the centers. We needed a new generation of farmers. The average age of the farmers had reached 60 years. Younger people did not enter the business. In 2012, all partner agencies decided to conduct a Jackson County Food Assessment. It took a year to get the groups together, interviewing the farmers and everyone involved in the food system. Kathy Bryon of the Gordon Elwood Foundation helped guide us in creating the Rogue Valley Food System Network. The food system web is growing. Are we there yet? No. But much progress has been made.

For ACCESS, for me, it was about how do we incorporate more nutrition into our programs. How do we partner with healthcare providers? People were struggling with diabetes and gluten intolerance. We established Food Share Gardens. People from Gold Hill, Rogue River, Medford and VA Dom grew food to distribute through ACCESS to food pantries. Those gardens produced, at their peak, about 50,000 pounds of organic vegetables a year. In partnership with the Oregon Food Bank, we are launching a new food recovery program called Fresh Alliance. This attracted large supermarkets such as Fred Meyer, Walmart and Safeway as major donors of frozen and perishable foods. The program grew and grew and grew.

With some federal money, we were able to purchase a refrigerated truck to use as a food pantry to distribute fresh fruits and vegetables. We were changing the paradigm of offering nutritious food to the community.

Q: What accomplishments at ACCESS are you most proud of?

Philip: I am very proud to work together with the Rogue Valley Food System Network. We were working for a better community with better nutrition for everyone, not just low-income people. Sherm and Wanda Olsrud have been incredible donors to ACCESS. I got to know them personally and felt very, very proud to know their example of giving. The Olsruds never wanted anything in return. They always gave because there was a need. Any opportunity to speak with them was a precious moment for me.

Q: You retired from ACCESS but recently joined the Rogue Valley Farm to School board of directors. What does Rogue Valley Farm to School do that makes a difference?

Philip: We have several programs focused on building gardens in schools and nutrition education. Elementary schools have lessons focused on their gardens: composting, growing plants, nutrition, and math lessons. The responses from teachers and administrators have been inspiring, not only changing the lives of children but also changing the lives of teachers and administrators. We are only reaching 25% of the schools in the area; we could get more.

Q: What about nutritional food sampling programs for children?

Philip: We have ‘Harvest of the Month’ tasting tables. It is usually a fruit or vegetable for the kids to try. They come to vote for him. We have our shopping program to include more fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches. We work with local farmers and are the regional hub for Oregon Farm to School. During the pandemic and fire, we were able to access and distribute over $1 million in fresh food to local families.

Q: You have lived in various places around the world. Why is this your house?

Philip: I lived in Manchester, England, then I moved to Australia and lived in Sydney, another big city. I suffered a little from the melancholy of life in the city, where you travel by bus and nobody recognizes anyone else. When I first came to southern Oregon, walking the streets, people were like, “Hello.” I immediately felt connected to the community. Working on food programs was the job I was looking for from the beginning because it was about the community. I was always a team player, no matter the sport. I want to improve things, but I can’t change them individually. Over and over again at ACCESS, we called for help and people stepped forward. It was really the part of the community that I loved. It’s about working together.

Q: What would you like to see that would improve life here?

Philip: I want to see children who are thriving, starting life with proper nutrition. It’s a personal choice going forward, but for young children, we have to find ways to help them early.

Q: What does someone from England think about life here?

Philip: I have friends who come from other countries and visit; They leave with a great impression of this area. To be able to go rafting, go to the redwoods and, a special gem, have the Oregon Shakespeare Festival here is very unusual. Having a smaller community that also has culture is very special.

Q: What has been reinforced that you now know for sure?

Philip: I have learned the importance of nutrition and how it affects people’s lives. I have learned that good food makes a difference, not only preparing and enjoying it, but also the experience of eating it together. I come from England and am the only one in my family who has traveled more than 50 miles from Manchester. It has taken me that distance to have perspective. Nutrition has spoken to me personally and turned into a passion to help the community.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime Rogue Valley resident. He continues to participate in educational and youth programs.

Bio: Rogue Valley Farm to School

Rogue Valley Farm to School educates children about our food system through hands-on farming and gardening programs and by increasing local foods in school meals. We inspire an appreciation of local agriculture that improves the economy and environment of our community and the health of its members.

RVF2S works in collaboration with schools to build a culture of health. Students participate in lessons on growing food, agriculture, nutrition, food preparation, and the environment. Programs include field trips to the farm, school garden activities, cafeteria programs, and teacher professional development. The monthly tastings expose students to foods such as vegetables, soups, or salads that students may not be familiar with.

Farm to School also helps school nutrition programs source healthy, fresh, local food. Dietitians and a professional chef work with schools and more than 20 local farms to provide healthy meals. For more information or to get involved with Rogue Valley Farm to School, visit rvfarm2school.org.

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