Norm McLaren, volunteer manager of the South County Community Food Bank, has left the Seaside food pantry following an eight-week suspension of food supplies imposed by the CCA Regional Food Bank.
Karla Gann, a longtime volunteer with the food pantry and experienced restaurant manager and owner, replaced McLaren, who left June 10.
The suspension of the agreement between the regional food bank and the Seaside food pantry began April 12 after regional food pantry Director Marlin Martin received information that food donated to the pantry had been distributed to another organization that is not involved in emergency feeding programs.
An investigation of the improper distribution was described in an April 12 letter to McLaren and the South County Community Food Bank board. The letter was written by Martin and George Sabol, director of the Clatsop Community Action agency, which operates the regional food bank.
At issue was the distribution of about 15 packages each of hot dog and hamburger buns to the Oregon Hunters Association for use in a fundraising event for the association.
Those involved in the Seaside food pantry “had full knowledge of the limits of the use of donated food, intended to feed hungry people, and not to be used for profit,” the letter said. “Furthermore, we were informed a request for a monetary donation for such product was made, and rendered to (the food pantry).”
The letter said the partner agency agreement between the two agencies would be suspended for up to 90 days. The suspension prevented the Seaside pantry from ordering food or other products supplied by the regional food bank until the issue was resolved and reached a “satisfactory resolution, including corrective actions for further improvement.”
On April 25, the regional food bank began a “mobile produce pantry” that offered fresh fruits and vegetables once a week in Astoria and Seaside from a van. The van is parked every Thursday afternoon at the Seaside Factory Outlet Center on U.S. Highway 101.
McLaren said Monday that he was told on June 10 that the suspension would be lifted if he left the food bank. On June 14, the regional food bank delivered supplies to the Seaside pantry.
“I think I was the main reason for the suspension,” McLaren said. “I take full blame. But it was something that had been done in the past.”
McLaren said the buns were old and “wouldn’t have lasted the weekend.” They would have been thrown out if not used soon, he added.
“We didn’t short our customers,” he said.
The buns were distributed during a youth-focused field day, where youngsters were being taught how to shoot safely with bows and with guns.
He said he had distributed buns the year before and put a donation jar out for the South County food bank but collected less than $20. This year, however, he didn’t request donations, he said.
Martin said the issues that led to the suspension were neither newsworthy nor something he would openly discuss.
“We’re working hard at a mission of feeding hungry people,” Martin said. “We’re trying to collaborate with people to do the best job.”
Letter to Safeway
The issue of the distribution of food to other organizations arose a few months after another incident when the Seaside Safeway store stopped donating food to the regional food bank and gave its excess bread and produce to the Seaside pantry.
In another letter, dated Nov. 15, 2012, Martin and Sabol asked officials at Safeway’s corporate headquarters in Portland to reconsider the decision and name the regional food bank the beneficiary of donations from the store’s 2012 “Help Us End Hunger” food drive.
The Seaside food pantry is just one of 37 partner agencies in Clatsop County’s regional food bank network, the letter noted. It receives “tens of thousands of pounds of food from the CCA Regional Food Bank each year,” the letter said.
“The low-income residents of Seaside and the South County area are served by our many food pantries and programs besides the South County Food Pantry,” it added.
Regulations governing food safety and signed agreements between all the organizations involved prohibit the South County pantry from distributing any food to other pantries or emergency feeding programs, the letter said.
Earlier this month, Safeway Manager Lori Young donated to the Seaside pantry a $2,800 “bonus check” the store received for being one of the top performing stores in the food drive.
McLaren, who has a letter to the editor in today’s edition of the Seaside Signal, had announced plans to retire last fall, but stayed on at the urging of the local food pantry’s board of directors.
Board President Neal Wallace confirmed that the bread donation was the ultimate cause of the sanction from the regional food bank. He said he believes other issues, including Safeway’s shifting of its donation to South County, also played a part in McLaren’s departure.
“I don’t think there was necessarily any one thing; I think there were a bunch of small things,” Wallace said. “I think regional hoped that this would change, but I think Norm was part of that ‘old school’ at the food bank.”
Wallace said in the past, South County had operated more independently, so things like the donation of the bread would not have been a problem. However, with a partnership with the regional food bank in recent years, Wallace said there are larger rules and regulations that the pantry now has to follow.
Wallace complimented McLaren’s work over the years. He said McLaren was tireless in his efforts to support the food pantry and families and individuals in need throughout the community.
“We thank Norm with all our hearts,” Wallace said. “He saved that place pretty much single-handedly when it needed saving.”
Wallace said the opportunity was there, and the time was right for both McLaren and the pantry to move on.
Gann jumped in
Wallace said Gann jumped in with both feet as the new director.
“My parents owned a restaurant when I was 4 years old — I grew up in the restaurant business,” Gann said. “The restaurant business was my forte. I worked as a manager for a lot of different places in Clatskanie, Kalama, Longview. I owned a deli in Cathlamet, Wash., owned the Hebo Bar and Grill.”
When she and her husband retired to Seaside, Gann volunteered for McLaren at the food pantry for two years.
Since taking over the pantry on June 12 – just two days after being asked if she was interested in the position – Gann and a team of volunteers have spent time cleaning the building, repairing or removing old equipment, throwing out bad food and restocking nearly empty shelves.
Both Gann and Wallace said the pantry lost several volunteers during McLaren’s departure. Recruiting people to work morning and middle shifts at the pantry and filling out the volunteer schedule is her biggest challenge right now, Gann said.
“The food distribution end is working well,” she said. “The stocking and picking up stuff (is where) we have a shortage.”
She is relying on existing volunteers and her family and friends to fill the gaps. Those interested in volunteering for the pantry should pay a visit, she said.
The relationship with the CCA Regional Food Bank has also improved in the last two weeks. Gann has already met with Operations Manager Dusten Martin.
She said she expects the regional food bank to inspect the pantry in the coming weeks.
One change Gann said she made immediately was that users of the pantry no longer have to show their identification. She said it will take her a few weeks to make all the changes required by the regional food bank.
McLaren said he had begun asking clients who he didn’t know for proof that they lived in the pantry’s service area, especially when they told him that they had just moved there. He said he learned some people actually lived in Knappa or Astoria. One couple said they were “on vacation” from Portland and staying in a Seaside hotel, he said.
“There were no checks and balances,” McLaren said.
A positive future
Wallace sounded a positive note for the pantry and the future of the relationship with the regional food pantry.
“When we get our bugs worked out here and we get up and going, recognizing all the programs (the regional food bank) is bringing to the area and taking full advantage of those, I think we’re going to be better than ever,” he said.
Gann echoed Wallace.
“We’re all positive here,” she said. “(We want to) do what needs to be done and take care of the people in need.”
This story originally appeared in Seaside Signal.