Eater Portland: Portland Food Pantries Struggle With Social Distancing Amidst Growing Crowds

With an all-out ban on on-site dining across the state, social service agencies, food pantries, and nonprofits are scrambling to rework their policies in order to continue feeding some of the city’s most vulnerable populations.

On Monday, Northwest Portland nonprofit Blanchet House attempted to limit guests in their eatery to only 30 at a time before the restaurant ban forced the nonprofit to shutter its dining room and pivot to to-go meals. Meals on Wheels has drastically altered their services, which relied heavily on interpersonal connection and hand-to-hand delivery, to provide its elders with a safe-distance buffer. And the Oregon Food Bank has been quarantining some donated items to potentially limit any spread of the disease from unknown surfaces. Each represents an effort to help feed thousands, and likely more over the coming weeks, as the economic fallout of COVID-19 hits Oregon.

Blanchet House is one of the few organizations in the Portland area that can collect and serve food from canceled events or other restaurants, which helps bolster the meals they serve. But now that they’ve switched to handing meals out instead of serving them, they’re in desperate need of to-go cups and containers.

Two gloved volunteers stood at a distance at each entrance Tuesday morning and handed out paper bags filled with hard-boiled eggs, doughnuts from Helen Bernhard’s Bakery, orange slices, and coffee to 250 people. But maintaining social distancing even in this environment has proven somewhat difficult, said Blanchet House communications manager Julie Showers.

“Our meal guests are in all kinds of stages of crisis, and not all of them know about this pandemic that’s happening or that people should be keeping six feet apart, but they know we’re serving food,” Showers said. “We can’t force people to keep six feet apart in the line outside. There’s not much more we can do safety-wise, so this is what we’re doing until we hear something else from the Joint Office of Homeless Services.”

While they’re currently getting inundated by businesses across the city looking to donate food, Showers worries how the closures will affect their food supply in the coming weeks.

“We’re getting an influx of calls from the Convention Center, the Hyatt, Helser’s, Bowery Bagels, an endless stream of restaurants and event centers,” Showers said. “We hope these donations don’t end when these businesses close their doors.”

The outbreak of COVID-19 has also dramatically changed how Meals on Wheels, the nonprofit food delivery service for seniors, sends along food to homebound seniors and feeds thousands at their 24 dining centers across Multnomah, Washington and Clark Counties.

To reduce the possibility of transmission to the virus’ most susceptible population, deliveries are now no-contact, a major shift in what is normally for some seniors, their only interpersonal interaction of the day, said Julie Piper Finley, Meals on Wheels’ director of marketing. Deliveries are now hung on door handles before drivers knock and back up 6-12 feet to provide a safe distance for the recipient to get their meal, briefly check in and go back inside.

But the fear of contracting COVID-19, which overwhelmingly affects Meals on Wheels’ entire care base of homebound elderly, has led to even more limited contact in some cases, Piper Finley said.

“I talked with a coworker who delivered meals and some of the people don’t even want to open the door until you leave,” Piper Finley said. “Then as you’re driving away, they will open the door. It’s a really different thing for us. We’re used to handing people the meal, you hug them if you know them really well, have a chat with them, and now we’re yelling at them from across the street.”

Those dining centers have also been closed, eliminating another crucial piece of service Meals on Wheels provides to seniors across the Portland metro area. About half the people who visit the dining centers need the food, Piper Finley said, but the other half come to talk to people.

“A lot of them live in rural areas…they don’t see anyone until they come to the center,” Piper Finley said. “That’s their gathering space, and now we’ve closed all of those for their own safety. Intellectually people understand that but what if this goes on three, four, 10 weeks, months? What if these people are all alone? We’ve told them they can transition [to delivery] but then they’re only talking to people for five minutes through a door. It’s a challenge.”

Both nonprofits, as well as the Oregon Food Bank, expect demand for food and services to increase over the coming weeks as mass layoffs across the state have decimated Oregonians’ livelihoods. At the moment, the OFB’s biggest concern is keeping the flow of food moving. The Food Bank’s Northeast Portland facility is the statewide food assistance distribution hub, responsible for moving food to the 21 regional food banks in Oregon and in Clark County, as well as more than 1,400 partner organizations, food pantries, soup kitchens, after-school programs and more across the state.

“We are anticipating a spike in additional needs as people are temporarily losing their jobs or hours or their businesses aren’t being successful or they’re home sick without paid sick time or unexpected medical costs,” said Susannah Morgan, CEO of the Oregon Food Bank. “Only time will tell how large that spike is, but after two decades of working in food assistance my gut says 30 percent so we need to keep the food flowing.”

The food bank is also adjusting the type of food it accepts to help mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19 and to reduce the amount of labor required at a time when volunteers are in short supply.

“Another reason why we’re really discouraging food drives is [the donated food] will have had a lot of hands on it by the time it got to us,” Morgan said. “We’re quarantining it for several days so we’re not unwittingly transmitting the virus, as well — much less so food that comes in pallets that comes in cases straight from a factory.”

The best way to help right now? Send money. Blanchet House, Meals on Wheels and the Oregon Food Bank will all need additional funding to keep the likely increased number of patrons fed and cared for over the coming weeks. If you’re under 60 years old and don’t have a high risk of contracting COVID-19, volunteers are also needed to help deliver, serve and sort food.

Morgan expects that spike in need will probably include people who have never needed food assistance before and may not know where to start.

“Help is out there, help exists, you can get signed up for SNAP, you can sign up for unemployment, there’s a food pantry in your neighborhood, please take care of yourself and stay healthy,” Morgan said.

Read the full story on Eater Portland

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