Lydia Browning, The Union Democrat

A food-collection program started in April 2012 recently passed the 100,000 pound mark.

As of Saturday, the Mother Lode Food Project has collected a total of 105,356.5 pounds of food. A donation of more than 8,000 pounds Saturday put the group over the 100,000 pound mark.

When the project first began, about 1,400 pounds of food were collected every two months. Now, the group collects about 4,500 pounds every two months.

The project is modeled after the Ashland Food Project. Instead of a one-time food drive, people become donors and receive a green grocery bag that they fill with non-perishable food or toiletry items. The bags are collected every two months by neighborhood coordinators.

The idea is to find regular donors rather than one-time donations.

The program was started by retired Sonora High counselor Ellen Beck, of Sonora. She was inspired by the Ashland Food Project while visiting her sister in Oregon.

When Beck presented the idea to retired Sonora High teacher Sue Mundy, of Twain Harte, the two became co-founders.

The food is donated to the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency Food Bank for distribution to those in need.

"ATCAA representatives have told us that their food amount has increased by 50 percent since we started donating," Beck said.

Word-of-mouth is what has helped the project gain such momentum, Beck said.

There are currently about three dozen neighborhood coordinators that collect the green grocery bags from participants' homes and about 500 individual participants. Those who live in closely knit housing communities can leave their bags outside their homes. Those who live a bit more off the grid are encouraged to join a group or larger organization.

"We ask donors to purchase one extra non-perishable food item during each shopping trip to include in their grocery bag," Beck said.

"People often thank us for helping them find a way to help easily. That is exactly what we want to do," Beck said.

Beck and Mundy, both of whom raised families in the community, wanted to find a way to make a positive impact.

"This is a good place to live and to work, and I wanted to give back," Beck said.

Beck has said she has met many new, generous people in the community since starting the project.

"It feels really good to feel like we are making a difference. There is clearly a need, and it's clearly making an impact," Beck said.

Through ATCAA, a lot of food donations go to single-parent households and senior citizens whose Social Security checks no longer meet their financial needs, the project's website stated.

Food donated to ATCAA is distributed in two different ways. Fifty percent of food donations are distributed to 17 local nonprofit organizations that are located in every area of the county. Each nonprofit is tested for safe food handling, stated ATCAA's website.

The other method of distribution is called the direct-services program, which aims to reach people in need who may be difficult to get to. This service program distributes donations to local community programs. For example, food is delivered to schools for children from low-income families and to the Senior Center and qualifying homebound seniors in need.

According to Lee Kimball, director of ATCAA's Food Bank, the agency each month serves an average of 1,348 through direct services, an average 1,113 children receive food to take home, 904 people get fresh produce, 106 medically frail people get home delivery and, through other agencies who work with ATCAA, an average 7,458 people per month receive some sort of food assistance.

A summer lunch program started this year served 1,578 lunches and provided those same children with 1,161 snacks, Kimball said.

More than 1,600 bags of groceries were packed for distribution to 561 families at Thanksgiving, Kimball said.

"We are very, very, very grateful and can't say enough to this amazing community who takes care of each other. They never drop the ball," Kimball said.

ATCAA is in need of more food donations for Christmas distribution.

Kimball also asked that donors think about not only Christmas food

items, but healthy food items in general, like a can of tuna or jar of peanut butter.

"Hunger isn't a Christmas event. It's year round. These numbers are a demonstration of the need," Kimball said.

Both organizations also accept monetary donations to help pay for perishable food items. Donations can be made payable to ATCAA Food Bank and sent to ATCAA at 427 N. Highway 49, Suite 301, Sonora, CA 95370. Monetary donations can be made to the Mother Lode Food Project at the same address with "Mother Lode Food Project" in the note line on the check.

To sign up to be a donor for the Mother Lode Food Project, go online to motherlodefoodproject.org or call Beck at 532-8609 or Mundy at 586-3642.

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