Dining with Dignity

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One in five Oregonians struggles with food insecurity. These nonprofits are rising to the challenge by doing more than just filling bellies.

 

STORY BY JULIE PETERMAN
PHOTOS BY MIGYOUNG WON

I was 5 years old when I first stepped into a food bank. My mother held my hand as we walked under the fluorescent lights and across the mildewed carpet. Volunteers herded us through the space like products on an assembly line. They dropped cardboard boxes in our arms, filled with boxes of macaroni and cheese, instant coffee, and dented cans with white labels and black block lettering: GREEN BEANS, CREAMED CORN, FRUIT COCKTAIL. In our home, there were cupboards we didn’t open when friends came over. I knew the shame and isolation food could carry.

But I knew the joy, too. At the beginning of the month, the food stamps would arrive, and we would buy heads of lettuce, trays of fresh, in-season fruit, ears of sweet corn, and tofu. Carrot tops poked out of the top of our shopping bags. As my mom sautéed veggies over the stove or whisked banana bread batter or seared steaks, we could see the tension fade from her shoulders.

People in our community are struggling. According to the Oregon Food Bank, one in five Oregonians is food insecure, which means they don’t have access to enough affordable, nutritious food. Organizations across the state are rising to meet the high demand for groceries and hot meals – and some are rethinking the way they do it, setting aside the dried, canned, and expired in favor of something that does more than simply provide calories.

CLACKAMAS SERVICE CENTER

Tucked away in a corner of southeast Portland, down a dirt road, there is small, unassuming plot of land called Errol Heights Community Garden. It’s in the city limits, but it feels like a different world, so quiet I can hear the wind ruffling the massive leaves of chard, butter lettuce, and beet greens against one another.

On one side of the garden is a small plot marked with a purple-painted wooden stake. It’s midsummer, and the soil is exploding with produce: waxy red and purple tomatoes, English cucumbers, eggplant, potatoes, fragrant basil, blooming heads of romaine lettuce. Everything harvested from this plot, as well as whatever gardeners choose to donate from their personal gardens, goes to the Clackamas Service Center, a hunger-relief nonprofit in North Clackamas that provides food boxes to people who are homeless or low-income.

Errol Heights Community Garden is one of 42 community gardens in Portland participating in the city’s Produce for People program, which donated over 42,000 pounds of fresh, organic, local produce to hunger-relief agencies in the surrounding area last year. This is produce that easily could have ended up at the Moreland Farmers Market, slipped into a reusable cloth bag, then the back of a Subaru, and then into the salad bowl perched on a family’s patio table on a warm, summer night.

But instead, it gets delivered weekly to the minimalist basement of the Clackamas Service Center, passing from a volunteer to the hands of a client. Then, it ends up on a bike trailer or the back of an RV, riding shotgun to the entire household’s belongings—or, sometimes, in the back of a Subaru headed home.

These vegetables provide a small sense of security for families who visit CSC. For at least five days, they won’t have to worry about where they’re going to find healthy groceries or fresh produce. More than that, it gives them options – a sense of agency and choice in what food they are putting on the dinner table.

ESTHER’S PANTRY

In Milwaukie, Oregon, Esther’s Pantry, a division of Our House founded in 1985, serves low-income, HIV-positive residents. Esther’s Pantry is unique in that it allows clients to select the food they want from well-stocked shelves, much like a grocery store. Inside, it’s painted lavender and mint green and illuminated by warm, soft lamplight. A volunteer greets clients, hands them a cart, and guides them through the rows of canned foods, fresh produce, dairy, and meats, letting them know how much of each item they can take. It’s sort of like being on a budget at the grocery store – you have limits, of course, but you have options, too.

Don Burke, a client at Esther’s, tells me about his favorite thing to cook from the pantry: whole chickens. He prepares them in a lot of different ways: he’ll put them in an oven bag with an herb and spice rub or boil, shred, and make a stock out of them for chicken noodle soup (of which the rest of the ingredients can be found in the Pantry). But every time “when they come out, they are BOMB.”

At Esther’s, there is camaraderie. You can feel it in the warm smiles and hugs, the greeting by name of almost everyone who walks in. It forms the shape of the space. In these small, everyday acts, Esther’s has created a community of people to rely on, commiserate with, and trust.

“We’re not focusing on your HIV; we’re not focusing on your homelessness,” says Dana Kinney, community services associate at Esther’s. “We’re focused on getting you food and making sure you’re comfortable and you’re well taken care of. Because when that is done, then you can focus on all the other issues.”

SISTERS OF THE ROAD CAFE

Across the city in Old Town, Sisters of the Road Café provides hot meals for homeless and low-income community members in a safe, dignified space. I’m there to meet with Shannon Cogan, Sisters’ community engagement manager. It’s 10 a.m., and the café doors are about to open.

Shannon is glancing around at everything happening around us. She’s brewing coffee, she’s making sure the volunteer at the cash register knows how to ring in orders, and every couple of minutes, she’s saying “hello” – a hand on an old friend’s shoulder, a wave to a new customer who just walked in the door.

“At Sisters, everyone is just their most raw and authentic self,” explains Leanne Falzon, a Jesuit Volunteer for Sisters. “That openness, you can feel it in here. You’re going to be embraced by so many people.”

When I ask customers why they keep returning day after day, they tell me they love the staff, the cozy environment, and the opportunity to do barter work – a program where customers can work for short increments of time in exchange for a meal. They rarely talk about the food.

“I felt like society threw me away,” DJ Husar, a Sisters customer, tells me. “And I don’t know how I survived, but I did. When I came here, I met the amazing people on staff. They made me feel like a person again. They made me feel like I was worth something.”

But for most people, meals are the initial draw. Yesterday, lunch was bacon macaroni and cheese, topped with homemade breadcrumbs, served with a side salad and honey mustard dressing. The day before that, it was a Southwestern wrap with corn, roasted red peppers, and spicy black beans. Before that, fry bread, a traditional Native American bread, made by a Native customer. It was supposed to be a one-time dish, but by popular demand, this community member comes in regularly now, just to make fry bread. This isn’t unusual at Sisters – the majority of the kitchen staff started out as customers.

Behind each plate of food is an extensive network of partners. Not a single organization would survive without partnerships, but the real impact is where these relationships allow hunger-relief organizations to thrive. At Sisters of the Road, for example, most of their veggies in the summer come from the CSA partnership Sisters has with Food Works, a local farm that provides employment training to teenagers interested in farming. Their grains are from Bob’s Red Mill, and staples like oil, vinegar, and meat come from the Oregon Food Bank. They get fruit from Bee Line, an urban gleaner that collects imperfect produce from stores like Whole Foods and distributes it to people in need. Fresh Alliance partners provide Esther’s Pantry with fresh produce as well as food that meets common dietary restrictions — options that clients would otherwise likely go without.

These days, I spend my evenings sautéing onions, grilling salmon, and assembling salads, wine in hand, music on the radio. I sit at the dinner table with my family and friends. I know exactly where I will get my groceries. I know the fridge will always be stocked.

But I will never forget unloading the stale, expired food from the food bank, in silence, with my mother. I will never forget the weight of those boxes. The deep, incredible isolation we felt even while, unbeknownst to me, thousands of families all around us were experiencing the exact same thing.

Back at Sisters, I sit down to have lunch. An employee is calling, friendly, across the café for a volunteer at the steam table. Veggies are sizzling as they hit the oil on hot pans. The café is buzzing with conversation so loud I can barely hear the person next to me. Customers are laughing as they spread jam on toast, sip coffee, and take bites of stir-fry.

These organizations are not blind to the fact that hunger is only one piece of the puzzle, a pebble in the ecosystem of problems facing our community. But they’re approaching it with something small – a seedling in a community garden, a bag of onions and potatoes, a plate of protein, grains, and veggies. From this small act of breaking bread grows something much, much bigger: a foundation, a community, a flicker of possibility.


Julie Peterman is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. She explores food, drink, and culture for local and national publications.

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