As More Oregonians Lose Their Jobs, the State’s Food Pantries Warn They’re Poised to Run Low on Supplies

At Blanchet House in Portland, lines stretch blocks: "I'm seeing a humanitarian crisis."

As the COVID-19 shutdown costs Oregonians their livelihoods, nonprofits that provide food for people in poverty are seeing a dramatic surge in demand.

The Oregon Food Bank says it could start running short on supplies as soon as two weeks from now.

"Requests for food assistance are increasing and increasing dramatically," says food bank CEO Susannah Morgan. She expects, without additional resources, her organization won't be able to meet the demand for food in any given week: "I'm concerned. That could happen two weeks from now or four weeks from now or eight weeks from now. It depends on how quickly other resources get put in play."

The demand for food from food pantries and soup kitchens is the latest sign of COVID-19's impact on Oregon's economy. It's another way the public sector may need to step in even as tax revenues are expected to dry up.

And it means that even as state officials deal with one public health disaster, they must confront another poised to erupt.

"I'm seeing a humanitarian crisis," says Scott Kerman, executive director of Blanchet House, which serves meals to homeless people in Old Town, where lines extend out the door for blocks. "I don't believe I'm using that term with any sense of hyperbole."

The Oregon Food Bank, which distributes food through 21 regional food banks and ultimately to 1,400 food pantries and meal sites across the state, has requested $7.5 million from the state as part of an emergency package to address COVID-19.

The Oregon Legislature did formally support a request for food assistance last month. But no amount has been agreed on, and Gov. Kate Brown has delayed calling a special session as the state figures out what resources it needs to fill in gaps the federal COVID-19 relief bill does not.

The governor's office says the state is ready to help with food.

The Department of Human Services "is in regular contact with the Oregon Food Bank to make sure they have adequate resources," says Brown spokesman Elizabeth Merah. "If the Food Bank requires additional resources to help Oregonians, Oregon's Emergency Coordination Center (ECC) is ready to help."

The effects of a statewide economic shutdown ripple downward to people on the edge of poverty. Oregonians who previously needed no help need some assistance; people who once needed a little help now need a lot.

The Oregon Food Bank doesn't have hard data yet on how many more meals pantries and other food sites are serving, but anecdotally, nonprofits are reporting an increase between 20 and 60 percent, says Morgan.

"We're hearing tons of people say, 'I lost my job,'" says Morgan, who adds that partner nonprofits usually encourage people to apply for unemployment and food benefits, but there is a lag time before people see them.

For the past three weeks, Blanchet House has seen record numbers of people seeking meals. In the first week of April, staff and volunteers (the kind Kerman says would "fight through zombies to get to our door" to help) served 9,700 meals—nearly double the numbers from the first week of March. The first week of the month is typically a time when the number of meals needed decline as public benefits become available at the start of the month.

People on the street are under new strains—with libraries, Starbucks and all restaurants closed, they're outside all the time.

"We have done whatever it takes," says Kerman. "We had to completely reinvent our operations. Our hearts are breaking for the people we're serving every day."

In the past, more than three-quarters of the food Blanchet House served was donated. But now restaurants are closed and don't have excess to contribute. Blanchet House must also now package its food instead of serving it restaurant style. Both those factors have increased costs from 33 cents to $5 a meal.

The county-city Joint Office of Homeless Services is stepping in to provide Catholic Charities $260,000 a month for 40,000 meals, some of which will be served by Blanchet House as well as on the eastside at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.

"If they're not getting the volunteers and donations, we need to step in," says Denis Theriault, spokesman for the joint office.

But food shortages appear to be affecting more people than just those living outside.

Mainspring Portland, a smaller food pantry at Northeast 82nd Avenue and Fremont Street, has seen lines down the block or two.

The food pantry shifted operations into the parking lot to make room for social distancing and instituted a new rule—"if you touch it, you take it"—for its grocery store-style operations. But most of Mainspring's 60 usual volunteers, many of them senior citizens or parents of schoolchildren, can't come. That means hiring temporary workers, paying overtime and looking for more funding as the food pantry strives to meet demand.

Mainspring served 200 people a day in the past; last Thursday, it served 3,000.

"I think it's going to become a growing issue," says Gabrielle Mercedes Bolívar, Mainspring's executive director. "It will  be months before [people out of work] are employed again."

House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) says the state needs to act quickly.

"The scale of this crisis has led to a dramatic spike in Oregonians dealing with food insecurity, applying for SNAP benefits and asking for more help," Kotek says. "We need to do more at all levels to assist those who are struggling to find the next meal for themselves and their families."

The federal relief package includes support for more food. But Morgan says the Oregon Food Bank doesn't expect to see that food arrive until July at the earliest.

The state's emergency coordination documents say officials are "conducting a risk analysis and initial planning for food shortages."

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