PHILOMATH -- U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden helped the Philomath community Saturday in celebrating two of its achievements, speaking at the ribbon-cutting of the newly-constructed and renovated Philomath High School, and touring the Philomath Community Services facility.

Wyden, D-Ore., joined Philomath Community Services at its annual barbeque to honor its supporters. The completely volunteer-run nonprofit has a food bank, gleaning operation, community garden and program that provides families with clothing and other essential items.

Wyden commended the group on its work and fielded questions from those, like board president Jeff Lamb, who are concerned about legislation that will negatively impact food banks across the country.

“We want him to argue in Washington that you can’t balance the budget on the backs of the poor people,” Lamb said.

Lamb was referring to the projected $1.2 trillion across-the-board spending reductions to the federal budget that will go into effect over the next 10 years unless Congress agrees on how to balance the budget. The sequestration, Lamb said, will cut 55 percent of the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, which helps supply food banks.       

Philomath, like many communities, continues to break records in the number of low-income families that depend on emergency food supplies, Lamb said.

“It’s very difficult when people are at the end of their rope and just barely getting by to cut the safety net full of holes,” he said. “It (budget cuts) would have a devastating effect on all food banks and gleaning operations.”

Wyden promised to push hard in Washington for better options.

“My whole role at the end of the year is to be part of coming up with an alternative to this mindless budget sequestration that would hammer your program,” Wyden said.

Wyden had a special interest in the nonprofit’s gleaning program, which requires that participants, if they are physically able, to volunteer 10 hours a month to qualify for supplemental food and firewood. Gleaners salvage firewood, unpicked produce from fields and unused food from markets that would otherwise go to waste.

“Gleaning, in my view, really gets short-shrift in terms of the federal government,” Wyden said. “There was a recent report that took our breath away – 40 percent of the food (in the nation) may be wasted.”

Wyden sponsored an amendment to the Senate’s version of the farm bill, which passed in June, that would allow gleaners to be eligible for USDA-backed loans for up to $5,000. The money would be used to purchase necessary equipment like freezers or refrigerated vehicles.

Philomath Community Services acquired a hand-me-down refrigerated van just two months ago, Lamb said. Before that, the group placed picked berries and other produce in ice chests.

“You can put so much in an ice cooler, but it’s not cost-effective and it’s not efficient,” he said.

The group is blessed to have the van, he said, but it’s 17 years old, and someday the gleaners will be forced to purchase a new one.

A volunteer spoke to Wyden during his tour of the facilities to tell him how important the gleaning program and community garden has been for her recovery from a disabling car crash. Raven Jeanette Pengraph, 49, of Philomath said that the programs are the only reason she is able to maintain a nutritious diet.

“As a recovering, isolated disabled person, this has given me the opportunity to come in when I feel I can do the work and volunteer time to help benefit my community, as well as myself,” she said. “because there are foods that are so wonderful and healthy and organic that come in here that I would not ordinarily be able to purchase.”

Wyden praised the program and tied it in with the success of the new Philomath High School. 

“Kind of like the school does education right, you do gleaning right,” he said.

Wyden served as keynote speaker at the school’s ribbon-cutting on Saturday. Hundreds from the community came to catch a glimpse of the new facility before classes begin in two weeks.

Wyden sponsored legislation that made it possible for the Philomath School District to receive low-interest construction bond dollars. Voters approved a $29.5 million bond measure in May 2010 to upgrade and renovate four of its aging school buildings. About $20 million went toward the high school project.

He commended the district and construction crew for performing the project within budget and on time. The district, he said, will save $20 million in interest during the life of the nearly-interest-free loan.

Communities like Vernonia, which recently built a new kindergarten through 12th-grade school, and Philomath are good examples of rural communities pulling together and pitching in to make every dollar count, Wyden told the crowd.

“Between Philomath and Vernonia, your two communities have now written the textbook for how to do rural schools and rural education right,” he said. “You have given us the model for success in a rural school.”

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