Hunger in Oregon: CHNN Interviews Phil Kalberer

100_0224Business is booming at Oregon Food Bank, the nonprofit organization that gathers and distributes food to the hungry in Oregon that began under Republican Governor Vic Atiyeh back in the 80′s, when the USDA was trying to unload surplus food, and has grown to a $12 million operation serving the entire state.  

Today I spoke with Phil Kalberer, who served as board chairman, “by default,” Kalberer chuckles, in 2007-2008 and remains on the board, currently spearheading a campaign to establish a new facility in Washington County, home of Nike, Intel, and a growing hunger problem.  After explosive growth that continued unabated for 30 years, Washington County has become ground zero in the current bust; the building industry that swallowed up this formerly sleepy collection of towns and bedroom communities and transformed it into a sprawling, prosperous, “Silicon Forest,” attracted large numbers of newcomers from points south as well as from the former Soviet Union, who snapped up the thousands of construction jobs that have now disappeared.  The accompanying minimalls, big box stores, and chain restaurants of suburbia, USA, and the jobs they provide are in trouble as well, plagued by bankruptcies, sagging sales, and a nationwide glut of retail.  Requests for food boxes are up 25% in the past year alone.  Half of the recipients are families with children, and half of those have at least one family member working, and the next largest group is the elderly.  Most disturbingly, Kalberer points out that a startling number of former donors have now become clients.

Oregonians have visibly stepped up to the plate; donations have increased as the recession has deepened, but need still far outpaces funds as unemployment and belt-tightening march in lockstep.  While OFB’s funding is 90% private, a state facing a $1 billion deficit is unlikely to take up much slack, even as roughly 1 in 5 residents of Washington County now at least intermittently rely on food boxes from OFB.  Volunteers have contributed 120,000 hours of work to the process of collecting, packing, and distributing food this year, and high profile companies, among them utilities like PGE, (once part of Enron), NW Natural Gas, and various healthcare/medical concerns have sent their employees to work for OFB along with large donations, and a considerable portion of OFB’s efforts, budget, and staff of over 50, are dedicated to volunteer coordination, Kalberer notes.

OFB has also been active during Kalberer’s tenure in attacking the causes of hunger;  he is justifiably proud of successful efforts in the state legislature to raise the minimum wage, devote an increase in the cigarette tax to pay for children’s health care, and to crack down on payday lenders.  ”Just putting food on the table isn’t enough,” Kalberer says.  Under his leadership, OFB also worked with doctors to help them identify the physical effects of malnutrition and to readily steer patients to apply for food stamps, and also promoted summer food programs for children reliant on free/reduced school lunches, for whom summertime doesn’t mean that living is easy.

At a recent event to kick-start the fund drive for the new facility in Washington County, Kalberer jokes, “a lot of politicians were there,” in a manner that stopped just short of glee.  Indeed, representatives from both Senators Wyden and Merkley, and Rep. David Wu, were in attendance, and $3 million in funding was secured, putting OFB on track to open the Washington County branch on schedule next March, a new milestone for this organization that distributed 55 million pounds of food to needy Oregonians last year.

In its early years, OFB relied much more on the largesse of the USDA and large national food processors, but during the Bush years USDA participation dropped nearly 45%, and consolidation and more efficient distribution networks decimated contributions from Big Food.  The upside of this, to Kalberer’s mind, is that the grocery stores and other suppliers that have stepped into the breach are making the food offerings more nutritious, and food quality is more important than mere quantity.

Kalberer, a successful businessman, veteran, and graduate of Stanford and Harvard Business School who ran his father’s company, Kalberer Hotel Supply, for three more years after he sold the business in 1998, (the name of which is still a Portland landmark in eight-foot letters on a building in Old Town, which he still owns) is clearly passionate about what he does with OFB, as evidenced by the fact that he even pressed me, quite aggressively, for a donation, more than once, as we talked.  Kalberer is not an unlikely activist, either.  His daughter described him as “almost a hippie” when she was growing up, and her parents hosted meetings of Dignity, the support group for gay Catholics, back in the 70′s, which was decidedly before such things were cool.

The first thing I asked him was how he came to be involved with OFB, and he said, flatly, “I’ve always been concerned about hunger.”  What a funny thing for a guy with his name on the side of a building to say, in this day and age.

Phil would, if he were here, direct Hag reader donations to:

Oregon Food Bank:

(503) 419-4165

Because no one should be hungry.


  1. bystander says:

    Great story, Hag. Thanks for detailing that interview. I can hope that those politicians got both an eyeful, and an earful.

  2. Karen M says:

    Great interview/profile, Hag! And thanks for adding the photo; he has a kind face.

    I hope you do some more of these interviews. Just think of the part they will play in historical archives of this depressing time.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Thanks, Karen. Phil is a great guy, and it was fun to talk to him about something he cares about so much, although he’s funnier when talking about other things. I do plan to do more interviews; it’s actually easier than staring at a screen trying to come up with something to write about.

  3. The Heel says:

    1 in 5 ???
    Wow, you’ve got to be kidding!
    Had no idea the recession is hitting “The Tron” so hard. Glad to see that there are kind, truly empathetic people out there.

    Have a great weekend all.

    • cocktailhag says:

      I believe the 1 in 5 figure refers only to occasional, rather than sole reliance on food boxes. CHNN regrets the error. You have a nice weekend, too, Heel.
      Sounds like your vaunted “freedom, democracy, and peace” over there in the Fatherland is starting to look like ours, at least when it comes to money. Pretty soon they won’t let you drink in cars.

      • The Heel says:

        Not drinking in cars? That would be the equivalent of not having guns in cars. Good luck enforcing it :)

        I am having a blast in beautiful San Diego this weekend. This climate is paradise. Full sunshine and around 80 degrees. My father in law’s house here in Cardiff has a 180 degree ocean view. This is such an uplifting and mind opening thing. It doesn’t get any better.

        Cheers, Tart,


        • cocktailhag says:

          That sounds lovely…. Here it’s 95 and humid, with an LA level haze. Worse, I have a client meeting at 5:00pm, which puts an awful dent in my Saturday afternoon drinking.
          Cheers, vicariously…..

          • The Heel says:

            you know you should come done and party with us. I will hook you up with any hedonistic pleasure you may seek and we will have a great conversation, rolling on the floor, laughing our asses off ;)


          • cocktailhag says:

            That does sound tempting, but I just signed papers to start a big job tomorrow, and I’ll be busy as a whore on Saturday night. Hello to all.

  4. Jim White says:

    Wonderful interview, Hag. The current problem here in Gainesville is that the local homeless shelter is licensed to only give out 130 meals a day. The demand, unfortunately, is about 200 a day now, and the city is forcing the shelter to turn people away. Even though Gainesville is usually seen as a speck of blue in a very red area, it’s things like this that made our fair city come in at number 5 recently on the list of cities meanest to the homeless.

    Here’s a story from the local paper about the mess:

    • rmp says:

      Or they can do like New York and give them a one-way flight out of town. Phil has the character that keeps me positive about our future no matter how hard that is in today’s America.

    • bystander says:

      Move ‘em to the outskirts is a fairly typical response. Of course the question is rarely asked how they’re going to get there or, once there, if there is available transportation for them to avail themselves of other city services that they need back downtown, or whether the travel involved is potentially onerous to people with medical/ambulatory problems such that they cannot travel for services… One would think that the response to the poor is they are best served invisibly. And, bus stop placements are typical nationwide. The solution for some Social Services agencies is to buy people bus tickets to go settle elsewhere. It was working with a homeless coalition that I decided I could be a Marxist. Reserve Army, indeed.

  5. cocktailhag says:

    That’s an atrocious story, Jim. Business “leaders” basically saying, “get them out of here and let them starve.” At least here they never say it so openly, although our anti sit/lie ordinance is fairly fascistic.

  6. heru-ur says:

    The wars in the middle east have cost more than 3 Trillion so far. This is a conservative estimate from a couple of years ago, and so is even more conservative now since we keep spending money on these wars.

    By my calculations, you could feed 32 million Americans well for a lifetime on that money without earning any interest in the bank on the sum.

    32 million Americans for a lifetime.

    • cocktailhag says:

      The choices we’ve made are indeed obscene; the last President who ever talked about war’s costs to society was Eisenhower, and the only congress people who do so is Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul. Pretty pathetic.

      • Karen M says:

        There was someone else, Hag, but I can’t remember his name. He tried living on that “dollar a day” for food (more or less the equivalent of min wage or food stamps…) while in Washington, and eschewed the food at public and congressional events. I think it was for a month. I know I wouldn’t be able to do that without getting sick.

        • cocktailhag says:

          I remember that. I can’t recall who it was, though. Have you read Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed?” In it, she lived on low-wage jobs for several months in different parts of the country, and tells the story. The saddest part is the straits her co-workers were in; they weren’t doing it just to write a book.
          It doesn’t happen very often anymore, thank god, but in my business there are often wild fluctuations in pay, not to mention a big project getting unexpectedly cancelled, that has put me where I have to go a week or so on very little money, and I know how to eat cheaply, but not that cheaply.

  7. Karen M says:

    In fact, there may have been a couple of congress reps who did the same thing. Not very many, though.

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