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Washtenaw United: Letter carriers in Washtenaw County to help 'Stamp Out Hunger'

John Odegard
John Odegard
John Odegard


Born and raised in Ypsilanti, MI, John has worked as a City Letter Carrier for the US Postal Service for almost 28 years.

Wanting to have a voice in ensuring a more quotable and inclusive workplace, he began serving the members of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch #434, the Union, which represents City Letter Carriers in Ann Arbor, Milan, Saline, Chelsea and Dexter, as a shop steward. He then went on to serve in other Branch Officer capacities.

He currently serves as the Branch President.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair. And as we've discussed many times before, food insecurity is growing just about everywhere, including here in Washtenaw County. The number of working poor is on the rise, as is the number of people in families who have to rely on food assistance. Well, your local letter carriers are working to make sure that assistance is available. This coming Saturday is Stamp Out Hunger Day, and the carriers will be collecting the nonperishable food items you leave out and make sure it gets to those in need. Our guest today is John Odegard, and John is president of Local Branch 434 of the National Letter Carriers Association. Thanks so much for taking time out today to talk with us, John.

John Odegard: Thanks for having me.

David Fair: I'm not sure a lot of folks think about letter carriers as part of the solution to stamping out hunger. But when you think about it, we all come from somewhere. And sometimes, life experience informs the manner in which we choose to serve a greater cause or purpose. John, you were born and raised in Ypsilanti. How cognizant were you growing up about the ongoing issue of food insecurity?

John Odegard: Well, actually, you know, in my own personal experience that I knew some people, some families that had a hard time, you know, coming up, and they had food problems. And, you know, back then we had, you know, other families and the community would help out. And, you know, I was aware that there was some families that didn't have enough to eat, and the community would band together. Even in the neighborhood, friends and family would band together and help a person out in a rough time.

David Fair: Now, life, obviously, has a lot of stress already built in, but the threat of going hungry has to be right at the top of the list. You've been a letter carrier for almost three decades now, and I would imagine in getting to know the people and the communities on your routes, you see a lot more than people think you do. Do you see those stressors playing out in our community?

John Odegard: Absolutely. You know, letter carriers every day, the joke is we know more sometimes about what's going on in their lives than even their neighbors just by looking at the mail or just certain things, you know, that we notice every day while delivering our routes.

David Fair: Beyond participating in the National Stamp Out Hunger Day, is your membership encouraged to report or say something if they see what may be a dire situation for someone you serve?

John Odegard: Yeah, we have done that before. Not only do we do this food drive, but we've had carriers bring things to the postmaster or, you know, union leadership, and we'll state about maybe we'll explore about helping out somebody or someone that's in a rough spot and seeing if we can help them. The key is to recognize that someone has a problem. Sometimes, people are too proud to say anything or, you know, so on and so forth. And we try to do our best to try to help people. We're just people out there delivering mail, but we're people with hearts. And we have empathy for, you know, our fellow man.

David Fair: And, for some, you're the only contact many have.

John Odegard: This is true.

David Fair: We're talking about stamping out hunger with John Odegard on 89.1 WEMU's Washtenaw United. John serves as president of Local Branch 434 of the National Letter Carriers Association. Now, your branch covers Ann Arbor, Midland, Saline, Chelsea and Dexter. The U.S. Postal Service is always struggling with budgets. It usually operates at a deficit and is frequently subjected to criticism for delivery times. That's what we get to read when looking from the outside in. From the inside, what are the challenges for your membership because of some of those perceptions and realities?

John Odegard: Well, those could be hard to overcome. You know, again, we're just like every other person. And sometimes, we have people that are upset at the delivery operations. It's no different. We have friends that work for the other delivery companies, and they experience the same things. But I think, overall, you have a group of people that work here as the carriers, the clerks, and even in the management. Like I said, they care about people. And it is hard sometimes to overcome the perceptions that are out there. And that partly comes with the job. And so, doing things like the food drive, this is a good way to raise community awareness, to show that we really do care about people at the very core, you know, issues that they may be experiencing, especially in food insecurity.

David Fair: And we'll talk about the membership helping out as a communitywide and in the community drive. But I also want to talk about within the walls of the union hall. We talk about working poor, being food insecure. And, you know, not every job pays as well as we would hope it would. Are there members of your union that might fall into those categories that you have to kind of rally around within the membership?

John Odegard: Well, you know, we get paid a pretty good wage, you know, through our collective bargaining that we have through the NALC. And between that and the Postal Service, we do have collective bargaining. We're one of the few federal agencies that still have collective bargaining. And, you know, but there are times where even carriers will fall into a problem. We just have some problems with some people during COVID. We've had people go through a problem at home, whether they've gone through a divorce or there was something that happened where they ran into some serious financial straits for whatever reason. And, usually, we take care of our own. To be honest with you, we just kind of, like, I guess you want to see pass the hat or find out how we can meet a need. Does someone needs some furniture? Does someone need this or that? We kind of look after our own like where our own family.

David Fair: What would you like us as a members of the general public to understand about letter carriers that you feel perhaps the majority of us miss?

John Odegard: I think the biggest thing that we want people to know is that, you know, we're just like you and that we really do care about our jobs. We care that you that you get the mail and the packages that you're looking for. You know, even though we're told that, you know, the most trusted agency, according to the public's opinion, is the United States Postal Service. And so, we just want them to know that, you know, we're out there trying to do our job in order to get you what you're looking for, what you need, your packages that you've ordered, and looking for the credit card in the mail or looking for, you know, that diploma that you worked so hard to get. We were happy to do that. The average letter carrier loves to put the service in the Postal Service. We really do.

David Fair: And coming up this weekend, the letter carriers are going to go above and beyond. WEMU's Washtenaw United conversation with John Odegard continues. As we approach Stamp Out Hunger Day, John and his fellow letter carriers will be picking up food items you leave out on Saturday to contribute to the effort to assist those who are suffering with food insecurity. John, how many years has your local been participating in the National Stamp Out Hunger Drive?

John Odegard: Oh, geez. It's been several years. I probably should have been prepared for that one. But it's been a long time. And, you know, we work closely with the food banks and the one we work with is Food Gatherers now.

David Fair: Right.

David Fair: You know, I have several statistics that I could put out there--I would love to put out there--about how many people are reached because of Food Gatherers' efforts and so on and so forth. But we've been doing this a long time, and that has made a difference in the community. One of the things that is important that this drive gets enough food, from what I understand, to help carry them into the late summer months. This is a huge drive. We do it nationally. Like I said, we're already going house to house, and it's just very helpful to not only to the Food Gatherers and the people that are trying to serve, especially people in Washtenaw County.

David Fair: So, I know a lot of people want to contribute, and I understand there, probably, if there isn't, should be, some sort of guideline as to how you leave food out and how you notify the carriers, so that the food can be collected and appropriately distributed. What do we need to do?

John Odegard: So, what we're going to do is we're going to be sending out some notices through the mail. We're going to deliver it to every address and saying, "Hey, our food drive is going to be on Saturday, May 13th," and to leave some dry goods either in the box or by the box. I believe, some post offices--I believe the ones in Washtenaw County--are going to be using these little bags. They're going to these orange bags and you could fill up full of food. You can feel free to, if you're out and about and you need to go to a post office for some reason, bring the food in. Well, Postmaster Carmela Orlando in Ann Arbor and Postmaster Carlos Jackson in Ypsilanti have both said they'll take the food in, and we'll make sure it gets to Food Gatherers, even if it's before or after the 13th. But it's so important to everyone. Like I said, just put it out by the box. You can even have a note on there that says, "Mailman or mailperson, knock on the door." And we'll get the food from you. We'll make sure we get it to the food bank.

David Fair: And how involved do members of the union become then in not only collecting it, but organizing it and make sure it gets to Food Gatherers?

John Odegard: Well, that's the fun part, right? Because it's not just our members that do it. It's almost the whole post office. I mean, the postmaster will come in. We'll have retirees come in and help. We'll have people from the community come in. So, there might be young people that want to do some community service. They come in. We'll help with the collection of the food. We'll help with loading the food onto pallets. And as they come back to the post office, there's people barbecuing for everyone working there. So it's more like a party atmosphere. So, there's a lot of joy going on while we're helping other people, which is the way it should be in life.

David Fair: So, once the deliveries are made and you get a moment to reflect on all of it, what is the collective sentiment about being part of stamping out hunger in our community?

John Odegard: I think it was an awesome idea, whoever came up with it, in the fact that we're already going house to house delivering mail. So, if we go to house to house collecting food, I just think it's remarkable that we'll be able to come together, even if it's just for one day and to collect so much food to serve so many people that are, you know, food insecure, to make life just a little bit better, to give a little bit more dignity, and a little bit more temporary justice if it were, you know, to help people that are in need. It truly is better to give than receive, and you experience it when you're part of something like this.

David Fair: Well, I'm glad you're going to get to do it. I'm glad you are doing it. And I thank everybody that is going to be involved. Thank you so much for the time, John, and pass along thanks to your membership for all the work you do.

John Odegard: It's my pleasure.

David Fair: That is John Odegard, president of Local Branch 434 of the National Letter Carriers Association. He and other postal workers and union brothers and sisters will help stamp out hunger Saturday, May 13th. For all information on how to participate, visit our website at WEMU dot org, and we'll get you linked up. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


Stamp Out Hunger Official Site


On Saturday, May 13, United Way Worldwide will join with long-term partner, the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) for Stamp Out Hunger, a day-long national food drive.

Every year, letter carriers drop off co-branded bags in more than 10,000 communities across America and on May 13 they collect the bags of food. Last year, they collected 43.1 million pounds of food, with the support of United Way, the communities we serve and our labor partners.

For Those Who Want to Participate:

Participants can fill a sturdy bag with nonperishable food (no glass) and leave the donation next to their mailbox before the delivery of the mail on Saturday, May 13. Letter carriers will collect these food donations on Saturday as they deliver mail along their postal routes and distribute them to local food programs.

Desirable Food Items to Donate Include:

  • Canned meats (tuna, chicken, salmon)
  • Canned and boxed meals (soup, chili, stew, macaroni, and cheese)
  • Canned or dried beans and peas (black, pinto, lentils)
  • Pasta, rice cereal
  • Canned fruits
  • 100 percent fruit juice (canned, plastic or boxed)
  • Canned vegetables
  • Cooking oil
  • Boxed cooking mixes (pancake, breads)

Donations within Washtenaw County will go to Food Gatherers’ community food pantry and network of hunger-relief programs. Food Gatherers is also a recent recipient of United Way of Washtenaw County’s Emergency Food Assistance Grants, to help supplement recent food shortage efforts.

Any questions about the food drive should be directed to your letter carrier, local post office, or at the Stamp Out Hunger official website.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU todayto keep your community NPR station thriving.

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Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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