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Early mornings in October are chilly, but the parking lot of the Klamath Falls Gospel Mission somehow still felt warm on Thursday as volunteers helped distribute boxes of food throughout Oregon and Northern California.

Forklifts transferred pallets of produce, dairy and meat boxes from vast refrigerated cargo trailers and onto a line of cars and trucks. Mostly wearing bright orange, the volunteers jovially greeted the visitors, making small talk as they filled their vehicles to the brim with fresh, free food. The cars drove off to deliver their bounty across the county and even the state.

Ammond Crawford, the Mission’s executive director, said this is the only major distribution point for hundreds of miles. People have come from as far away as Lakeview, Medford and even Salem to pick up food and distribute it further within their own communities.

“It’s going everywhere,” he said.

Six months ago, farmers across the nation were dumping millions of gallons of milk, smashing hundreds of thousands of eggs and leaving onions and beans to decompose in fields. With pandemic stay-at-home orders leading to zero food demand from schools, hotels and restaurants and food banks overwhelmed with donations, growers had no other way to get rid of much of their crops.

In mid-May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began the Farmers to Families Food Box Program to make up for losses in the country’s agricultural supply chain. The federal government purchased food from farmers and ranchers and entered into contracts with food distributors, who would package and deliver boxes of fresh food to community food banks and anti-hunger organizations.

Crawford said few of those distributions initially occurred in the West, prompting him to reach out to USDA asking to set up food deliveries to the Mission. Sysco eventually handled the packaging and trucking of the food from farms throughout Oregon (the program requires it to originate within 400 miles of its end point) to Klamath Falls twice a week. The Mission acts as a drive-through bulk grocery store for churches and community organizations to feed people directly.

The Mission’s efforts were relatively modest in June, receiving and distributing about 770 units for each of those deliveries. Each unit includes a 10-pound box of produce, a 5-pound box of meat, a 5-pound box of dairy and eggs and a gallon of milk.

For about four weeks now, the Mission has been receiving and distributing around 5,400 units with each shipment. That’s more than $500,000 worth of food — twice a week.

“It’s Christmas in October,” Crawford said.

Crawford said the food isn’t just for people in dire straits. Since most families have taken some kind of a hit during the pandemic, not having to take a trip to the grocery store can go a long way. And every box delivered means a farmer gets paid for food they would’ve otherwise had to throw away. That was something he stressed when contacting local organizations and business owners encouraging them to take advantage of the program. Between 60 and 80 different “vendors,” as he calls them, show up at each distribution event to take the boxes.

Crawford marveled at how much the operation has grown since the beginning of the summer. He first asked Pete Bradley, a Mission volunteer chaplain, to help haul boxes. Now, Bradley is the operation’s de-facto coordinator, managing a team of around 40 volunteers, directing traffic and coordinating each delivery to the Mission.

Bradley said his favorite part of the job is seeing people’s faces when they receive the food.

“I’ve taken a box up to a lady and she just started crying her eyes out,” he said.

Volunteers head to the Mission at 6 a.m. every Monday and Thursday and begin unloading pallets, breaking some down into smaller units for organizations that don’t need quite that much food.

“It’s awesome to watch,” Crawford said. “I had no idea we would get this much help.”

Krista and Kenneth Prescott, who own the Malin-based construction company KP Builders LLC, have been lending themselves and their equipment to the distribution events since Bradley asked them if they could step in for a forklift operator who couldn’t come in one day. They agreed — and brought their own forklift with them to boot.

When Bradley asked the Prescotts how long they could help out for, Krista said they’d stay “’till the program ends or the wheels fall off.”

“So far we’ve blown three trailer tires, but that hasn’t stopped us,” she said.

Volunteers at the distributions said it feels good to get out and help, especially when a lot of neighborly activities can’t happen during a pandemic.

Patrick Neal from Calvary Temple of Klamath Falls has been battling lung cancer but said he was all in when he first heard about this program. People he’s distributed food to have been very appreciative.

“They’re grateful, and I’m just grateful to be able to do it,” he said.

Margie Hoffman, Bradley’s right hand who helps things move smoothly, became a widow two years ago and couldn’t think of anything to fill her time.

“The door opened up to serve, and so all summer long, twice a week, I’ve had a reason to go forward,” she said. “The need is endless.”

As long as he can get more volunteers to help distribute, Crawford said there’s really no limit to how much food the Mission can give away. People interested in volunteering should call the Mission, and organizations or individuals hoping to distribute food to their neighbors and communities should either call the Mission or visit their parking lot around 11 a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, after all of the scheduled donations have been given away.

“The more people know about it, the bigger we could go,” Crawford said. “We could cover all of Southern Oregon.”