For seven years, Ron Phillips has played a key role in keeping Del Norte County fed.
In the summer, he’s at the fairgrounds in denim overalls and straw hat, clipboard in hand, visiting vendors at the Crescent City Farmers Market. Most other times, Phillips is running the food bank at Rural Human Services.
And in the six weeks or so leading up to Christmas, Phillips helps make sure Del Norte County’s youngsters have gifts to put under their trees through RHS’s Santa’s Workshop program.
But it took Phillips, who moved to Crescent City with his wife Nita in 2005, a couple years to get to know the community he lived in.
“I think it was exciting because it was all new,” he said, adding that he started with RHS in 2007, running its Tall Ships Festival, leading a crew to repair storm damage from the year prior and spearheading Santa’s Workshop. “In about that same time there was an opening on the harbor commission and I applied for it. There were six of us who applied and they appointed me. I’ve been on there ever since.”
Even though he hadn’t lived in a community with a harbor — the Phillips came to Crescent City from Reno, Nevada — Phillips said he was in the U.S. Navy and had always enjoyed being around the water.
“My dad loved to go fishing,” he said. “I didn’t care about fishing, but I liked to drive the boat.”
When Phillips was first appointed to the harbor board, the district was still rebuilding from the 2006 tsunami. Four years into his term as harbor commissioner, the port took more damage from the March 2011 tidal wave. The harbor district is currently working to pay down a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that helped rebuild the inner boat basin.
In 2007, the harbor district was looking for someone with a background in business because it was facing the prospect of filing bankruptcy, Phillips said.
“I have been a businessman pretty much all my life in some form or another,” he said. “They needed someone who really understood what it was to be in business, cause we are a business.”
Even though he’s only worked with Phillips for about three years, Charlie Helms, who became harbormaster in 2014, said he admires Phillips’ objectivity.
“He’ll look at all sides of an issue, which I appreciate,” Helms said. “He may believe something coming in, but he’ll listen to the facts and will adjust his opinions according to the facts.”
Since he began working for RHS, Phillips has seen the Crescent City Farmers Market go from a collection of 22 vendors in the plaza at 3rd and K streets to an event that draws up to 80 sellers at the Del Norte County Fairgrounds.
Phillips said if the market ever runs out of room in the fairgrounds parking lot, it’s too big. Until then, he places Kerby, Oregon farmer Cron at the end as an incentive for visitors to scope out the entire market.
Phillips has also spearheaded the Market Match program, allowing low income residents easier access to fresh fruit and vegetables. This year, the market received a $4,000 grant, which enabled it to expand the Market Match program. Roughly $3,000 in additional money came from the Women Infants and Children program, which provides coupons for the recipient to give directly to the farmer, Phillips said.
With both the Market Match grant and the WIC coupon program, Phillips said $10,000 is going directly to the farmers or food purveyors at the market.
Without Phillips at the helm, the farmers market wouldn’t be as successful as it has been, said Connor Caldwell, food projects coordinator for the Community Food Council.
Since its inception, the Community Food Council has worked with Phillips on food security issues. The Community Food Council also successfully pursued a grant to increase the Market Match program at both the Crescent City Farmers Market and the Downtown Farmers & Artisans Market.
“In the early years it was a lot smaller,” Caldwell said. “It’s steadily grown every single year into what it is today and it’s largely due to (Phillips).”
The RHS food bank has also grown with Phillips at the helm. He began delivering food to distribution sites in about 2009 and took over purchasing food and volunteer coordination in 2011. Back then, the food bank distributed about 400 boxes. Now, it delivers about 700, Phillips said.
However, RHS, which had run its food bank and domestic violence shelter with Community Development Block Grant dollars, has faced challenges in recent months. Following the resignation of its executive director, Scott Feller, who was named in a sexual harassment lawsuit against the nonprofit, Crescent City revoked the CDBG contract it had with RHS. The city awarded the contract to the Community Food Council for food pantry services.
Despite losing that funding stream, Phillips said the RHS food bank will still serve the community.
“They’ve been doing it for 30 years,” he said. “They’ll do it for another 30 years.”
Brittany Rymer, the Community Food Council’s food programs coordinator, said she’s been working with Phillips to make sure “food access stays strong in Del Norte County for those in need.” She pointed out that uncertain funding streams and uncertain board politics make it a difficult time for a variety of community organizations.
“Ron is working really hard to keep access open at RHS,” she said. “I admire all that he’s putting in to that. RHS, has got a whole lot on its plate right now and I know he’s putting a whole lot of effort into it, helping keep food accessible to those in need.”
At this point, Phillips said he doesn’t know what will happen to his position, which had been partially paid for through CDBG dollars. RHS employee Dawn Venturi has helped Phillips manage the farmers market, while Trish Hughes is spearheading Santa’s Workshop this year.
Asked why he continues to work for RHS, Phillips’ answer was simple.
“I love it,” he said. “I like people.”
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