Nightly News   |  September 29, 2011

Oregon food bank pays it forward

A Portland, Ore. community food bank has what might be a new model for neighbors helping each other: in order to get, you also have to give - and it's working. NBC’s Lee Cowan reports.

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>>> with so many americans struggling to make ends meet, food banks have been stretched to the limit, but portland, oregon, has what might be a new model for neighbors helping each other. in order to get you have to give. it's a formulation that appears to be working well. our report tonight from nbc's lee cowan.

>> reporter: sometimes a grocery store is more than just a place to shop. at birch community services , it's a place to survive.

>> it's helped feed my family.

>> reporter: the average family who shops here has five kids and earns just $40,000 a year. but every item -- from the bread to the boots -- is free.

>> thank you so much.

>> i can't imagine anything more fulfilling than getting free stuff and giving it away.

>> reporter: barry and his wife suzanne run birch community services . their goal is to help the working poor . while the clothes and food is free, there is a price to pay.

>> step up or step out. that simple.

>> reporter: that means no free lunch . to shop here families pay $50 a month for a membership. they have to volunteer in the warehouse twice a month. and they have homework. families are required to attend at least one home finance class as well.

>> they don't say, hey, come in, shop, pay us your dues. okay, bye. they say, no, let's help you.

>> reporter: leeanne johnson is a stay at home mom with three kids. her husband, ben, had a steady job but when the economy dipped so did his hours.

>> i thought we'd lose the house.

>> reporter: but with the budget ti tips they may make a dent in their debt.

>> i need help but i'm not going to just take. i want to give.

>> reporter: there are 600 other families just like them, getting a hand up, not a handout. it is a remarkable story of success. made even more remarkable by the fact that it was borne of personal failure.

>> when i was 40 i lost everything i had. i was actually eating out of a dumpster.

>> reporter: years of alcoholism and gambling had taken their toll. a handout wouldn't have helped. accountability did. and a business model was born.

>> bless you.

>> this program is 90% about people and 10% about food. most of the other programs are the reverse.

>> reporter: it's not for everybody. tough love hurts sometimes. it can't be quite as tough as the times. lee cowan, nbc news, portland.