The rates of food insecure families in Oregon have substantially increased during the pandemic. We’re taking a look at the organizations who are making sure kids don’t go to bed hungry.
There is great wealth in our country and local community. But the truth is that many Portland families face hunger and food insecurity. Putting food on the table can be a struggle at any time. However, the economic toll of the pandemic has exacerbated this issue and significantly widened its net.
Despite the overall improvement in the economy since the first year of the pandemic, for many families, the challenges have only grown: lost jobs, reduced work hours, transportation issues, getting sick with COVID-19, school closures and more. In fact, as the pandemic wears on, experts report that growing numbers of families are facing reduced income and greater difficulty getting enough food to feed their kids.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a household’s lack of access — financial and otherwise — to adequate food. Hunger is the personal experience of not having enough nutritious food to eat.
“It’s incredible to notice how much better I felt after eating homemade, creative meals with my friends. Not only can food bring people together, but wholesome food seems to be beneficial to the body,” notes one Feed the Mass student scholarship recipient.
Another student who participated in the cooking education nonprofit’s summer programming says she enjoyed learning to cook healthy food because it allowed her to get out of her head a little and not worry about everything else that was going on.
According to the Oregon Hunger Task Force, rates of food insecurity have skyrocketed in our state to approximately 25% of the population.
A recent Oregon State University study found that pre-pandemic, approximately 1 in 10 Oregon families experienced hunger or difficulty getting enough food. By late 2020, the report found that the prevalence of food insecurity jumped to 1 in 4 families, totaling an estimated 1 million people. Additionally, the researchers noted that rates of food insecurity were two to three times higher for people in historically underserved communities, including Black families and single mothers.
The primary response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been focused on caring for the sick, masking, vaccination and social distancing. However, food insecure, overwhelmed families also need help. This unprecedented need is being met in Portland by many new and longstanding food insecurity nonprofits and organizations, including some that started in response to the pandemic. Here’s a look at who’s feeding Portland’s families, and their important, inspiring work that continues whether COVID-19 cases are surging or in retreat.
In March 2020, when their in-person cooking classes had to shut down, cooking education nonprofit Feed the Mass quickly shifted to feeding the community. The nonprofit, which was founded by Jacobsen Valentine, initially started using the food they had on hand, but as word got out about their efforts to get food to those in need, volunteers and food donations followed. By January 2021, Feed the Mass was providing an average of 6,000 meals per week, says spokesperson Tabitha Donaghue.
At first they were delivering food to people in need, but as the need and demand grew, they shifted gears. They moved to a new kitchen space in Northwest Portland and hired staff. “We ended our direct-delivery program and now work with community partners to deliver meals to emergency shelters, churches and food pantries,” says Donaghue. Feed the Mass currently has enough funding to provide these meals for free through the end of this year, says Donaghue. “As long as the economy is experiencing this downturn, we anticipate continuing these operations.”
In addition to feeding families, Feed the Mass also continues to provide virtual cooking education programming tackling everything from nutrition, cooking tutorials, financial literacy, fitness, and mental health for low-income families with children in the household. “We’re focusing on all the determinants of food insecurity, food poverty, and getting access to good, nutritious food for families with children of all ages,” says Donaghue.
The mission of the Oregon Food Bank is to end hunger and its root causes, explains Ashley Mum, the nonprofit’s public relations manager. Since its inception more than three decades ago, the nonprofit has grown to include a network of 21 regional food-distribution locations, more than 1,400 partner organizations and thousands of volunteers across Oregon and Southwest Washington.
While the economy has largely improved from the bleakest days of the pandemic, hunger remains a big problem for many families, says Mum. “Each week, we move more than a million pounds of food through our Portland-based, statewide warehouse, which serves the entire state (and Washington’s Clark County), so the need is definitely still there.” Mum adds that the food bank estimates that nearly 1 in 5 people in Portland alone need food assistance.
Throughout the pandemic, the Oregon Food Bank continues to provide emergency food assistance to anyone who needs it. “The most important thing I’d like to convey to folks is that food is available. There is no stigma and no other qualification for folks to access food than the need being there,” says Mum.
The Oregon Food Bank has also set up distancing and masking requirements to ensure the health and safety of those in need of food assistance, their volunteers, and their staff. But, as we are in year three of the pandemic, says Mum, the biggest difference is just how many people the nonprofit serves. “Pre-pandemic, our network welcomed more than 860,000 people each year, a sizable difference from [2020’s] 1.7 million people.” They anticipate 2021 and 2022 numbers to be slightly lower, but still much higher than normal.
Urban Gleaners, which is run by founder and executive director Tracy Oseran, has been working to reduce food insecurity and food waste in Multnomah and Washington counties for more than 15 years. The intrepid nonprofit partners with local businesses to collect more than a million pounds of fresh food each year that would have otherwise been thrown out. It then distributes the food at more than 35 weekly distribution sites.
In response to the pandemic, the staff worked hard to quickly expand their services to feed more than 8,000 people per week. “Our already vulnerable neighbors, community members and children have been unfairly and gravely impacted by schools closing, isolation and limited access to healthy food,” says Clare Stager, Urban Gleaner’s program director. “We will rescue food before it can go to waste, and we will get it to people who need it.”
According to Urban Gleaners, the environmental benefit of their food rescue efforts is equivalent to saving more than 425,000 gallons of gas from being used. Additionally, they have passed out food to an estimated 65,000 people and counting. “What I’ve learned over the past 15 years is that there is more than enough food for everyone, we just need to get it to those who need it. Our model could not be more simple and effective,” says Oseran.
Mxm Bloc is a group that sprang up during the George Floyd demonstrations to address hunger and other urgent needs of Black families in Portland. “We aim to be responsive to the needs at the moment,” says LaQuisha Minnieweather, one of the eight founders. Rather than operating as a straightforward food program, the group seeks to stay nimble by connecting people, such as houseless families, with the resources they lack, from toilet paper to masks, help with bills, gas cards, or somewhere to sleep. “We are attentive to basic needs as a whole,” says Minnieweather. “We help with whatever families need to thrive and survive — food is just a big part of that.”
Mxm Bloc, which sprung up as the Wall of Moms group started to unravel, came to be when a group of friends saw a need. “We thought there should be a group led by a group of Black moms. We had a Zoom meeting and the rest is history,” says Minnieweather. The community-based group operates a dynamic Facebook group where people from the community can share resources, voice concerns and get help. Recently, they started an online program called Wish Wednesdays. “People can ask for something they need and people will grant those needs. In our Facebook group, there is a lot of trust and people feel safe to be vulnerable and ask for what they need.”
The Oregon-based Equitable Giving Circle (EGC) was started just before the pandemic to create peer-led, community-funded, transformational change by focusing on increasing equity for Portland’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. The aim of the nonprofit is to not just talk about issues of racism, but to directly take them on to create meaningful change.
Initially, the group was focused on supporting BIPOC-led small business owners, says founder AJ McCreary, a 36-year-old single mother. But once the economic realities caused by COVID-19 surfaced, EGC quickly pivoted toward addressing Portland’s ballooning food crisis, which has been disproportionately hard on BIPOC communities. “We now have a robust food program, including a home-delivered (Community Supported Agriculture) program serving around 300 families per week.” The organization purchases produce boxes from local Black and Brown farmers and then gives the foods — including pantry items and proteins — to BIPOC families.
Additionally, the giving circle operates a weekly food pantry, where people can come to shop in a free farmers market. The program serves around 60 households weekly. “Our dollars hit twice by supporting BIPOC businesses and going back into the Black and Brown communities,” says McCreary.
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