Rufus Food Pantry offers food for all, no questions asked
By Drew Myron
Jenny Estes had to choose between heat or food. “When you’re on a limited income, $1,000 a month doesn’t go far,” she says. “I have a house payment. It was a choice between paying my bills and eating.”
In this past year, that choice has been eased, thanks to the Rufus Food Pantry. And Jenny is not alone.
In a town of just 250 residents, the Rufus Food Pantry has consistently fed more than 100 people since opening last June. Nestled in the Rufus Community Center—formerly the Rufus School— the pantry is open two days a month and offers a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats, along with staples such as butter, milk, eggs, rice and canned goods.
The Rufus Food Pantry is part of the Columbia Gorge Food Bank network, an Oregon Food Bank program that supports more than a dozen hunger relief efforts in Wasco, Hood River and Sherman counties. CGFB receives donations from grocery stores, local orchards and government commodities.
“For years, there was only one food pantry in all of Sherman County, and it was only open one day a month,” says Sharon Thornberry, liaison for Oregon Food Bank and the regional Columbia Gorge Food Bank.
The other pantry is in Wasco, 15 miles south of Rufus.
At the base of the John Day Dam in the Columbia River Gorge, jobs are scarce and housing is limited in Rufus. The nearest full-service grocery store is 25 miles away, and there is no public transportation.
From retirees to working moms, from folks living in cars to those living in comfort, the Rufus Food Pantry feeds all, and there is always a line of people waiting for the doors to open. There are no income or geographic requirements—and no judgement—according to Cheryl Wason and Carrol Arthur, the dynamos running this all-volunteer effort.
“There is a stigma about going to a food bank, especially if you’ve been able to provide for your family all your life and then you can’t,” Cheryl says. “But we want people to feel comfortable. Even if you just need a bag of beans, if you need spaghetti sauce, come in. From Wasco to Wishram, we’ll take people from everywhere and anywhere.”
The volunteers don’t ask for identification.
“It doesn’t matter,” Cheryl says. “We’re not here to police anyone. There is a need, and we’re here to fill it.”
Cheryl and Carrol know what need is.
Longtime residents of Rufus, Cheryl and Carrol share an easy camaraderie, along with a common understanding of love, loss and illness. Both have lost children to tragic deaths, and both are grappling with severe illness.
Carroll, 73, is retired after working 35 years at the Fred Meyer garden center. Her husband, Don, suffers from kidney disease and is waiting for a transplant.
“We lived for a year without income,” Carrol says.
Despite his poor health, Don volunteers at the food pantry,
carting groceries for customers and making deliveries along the shores of the Columbia River where more than a dozen people live in tents and makeshift shelters.
Even with their firsthand knowledge of economic hardship, “We were amazed how many people need this, especially people living on the river,” Carrol says.
At 63, Cheryl is recently retired after working an assortment of service jobs since she was 13—waitress, bartender, retail, park service—and she’s lived with leukemia for 11 years.
With backgrounds in retail and customer service, the duo take pride in the pantry’s appearance and atmosphere. Offering more than just beans and rice, the Rufus Food Pantry shines with personal service. Volunteers individually guide each customer through shelves, helping to place choices in carts.
“It’s not like the other places,” says Debi Douglas, who shops with her husband, Johnny. “The people are friendly and there are a lot of choices.”
Clean, tidy and brightly lit, the pantry occupies a few small rooms on the west end of the dilapidated Rufus Community Center. The volunteers turned trash into treasure by scrubbing the space, assembling shelving, spreading tablecloths and installing heat. The school has no working restrooms, so they secured a portable outhouse.
While they’re concerned about a summer without air conditioning, Cheryl and Carroll look on the bright side.
“We were lucky to get this room,” Cheryl says.
As the pantry fills with shoppers, Cheryl expresses her gratitude.
“I had tremendous support from this community when I was going through hard times,” she says. “Because of that, I try not to judge people. You never know what they’re going through.”
The Rufus Food Pantry is in the west end of the Rufus Community Center at 304 W 2nd St. in Rufus, Oregon. It is open the second Friday of every month from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the fourth Friday of every month from 4 to 6 p.m. Send donations to: Rufus Food Pantry, PO Box 25, Rufus, Oregon 97050. To volunteer, call 541-980-0793