Every Thursday morning at 8:30, Habte Sequar and his wife take a bus to join about 20 senior immigrants from six African countries at Northeast Portland’s Africa House -- a community center managed by the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO). Sequar makes the trip to take part in the organization’s weekly food service. The food reminds him of his home country -- Eritrea -- which lies on Africa’s east coast and borders Ethiopia.
While Sequar waits for his food, he gets help learning English from IRCO staff that also speak Eritrean. He also gets to spend time with friends, and tend to fruits and vegetables in the community center’s garden. Meanwhile, his wife joins in on a knitting group with more than a dozen other women.
Around 12:30 p.m., the festive atmosphere is interrupted by an announcement. Lunch is ready. Like clockwork, volunteers lift the lids off six full-sized catering containers and dig into the food with serving spoons. One-by-one, visitors get in line and help themselves to beef seasoned with berbere spice, stewed yellow split peas, red lentils, steamed cabbage, carrots and potatoes. Rolls of injera -- a spongy flatbread staple -- are on the side.
“When I eat here, I feel so good,” Sequar says. “I used to eat this food all the time -- it reminds me of home.”
For Sequar, whose son told him about Africa House, this is more than just a meal. It’s what has been keeping him connected to the community since he arrived in the United States seeking asylum six years ago. And when he comes here, he is able to get other services ranging from language help to fitness classes.
The weekly meal at Africa House is one of several culturally-specific meal programs supported by the Department of County Human Services’ Aging, Disability and Veterans Services Division. The program’s goal is to combat hunger by giving the county’s diverse, older population a chance to socialize and eat something familiar.
Each partner organization has multilingual staff who can speak with the county’s diverse communities. They then use the county’s funding to collaborate with local restaurants to cater the food. In turn, the agencies offer ongoing meal services to their clients -- free of charge.
The initiative has been a success, garnering attention in Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury’s 2015 State of the County address. Last fiscal year, the program served about 17,800 meals to more than 700 adults. And now, the county is expanding its funding. The objective: more than double the meals served to older adults from 17,800 to almost 43,400.
Lee Girard is the community services manager of Aging, Disability and Veterans Services. She’s been involved with the meal program since she started working at the county eight years ago. Over the last several years, she says, the county’s older population has grown more diverse.
“We’ve had some form of culturally-specific meals for many years, but it’s always been funded at a small level,” Girard says. “About four years ago, we decided to triple the funding from $50,000 to $150,000 because we wanted to better meet the needs of the county’s diverse population.”
With the extra funding, the county began reaching out to nearby culturally-specific agencies to serve the meals. In 2012, after a competitive bidding process, the county awarded contracts to several local organizations: Asian Health and Service Center, Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), and El Programa Hispano.
Since then, according to Girard, the program has grown exponentially. She says the county’s non-English-speaking population often faces obstacles that others might not. Those obstacles range from language barriers to difficulty accessing services. The different providers help ease the gap by offering services in a way that’s familiar to them.
Lori Rooney works for Africa House as a senior services access and outreach specialist. She plays an integral part of the meal service, and she even goes out to the local restaurants to pick up the meals in person.
For Rooney, the meal service is a critical part of her program’s mission.
“The meal is very attractive for our visitors,” she says. “But when they come here they also find out about all the other services we provide. It’s great to see them get connected.”
There’s also the economic benefit. According to Girard, each county dollar spent on catering with local restaurants means more money for the community.
“Through the culturally-specific contracts, our partners are serving communities of color and then doing business development with communities of color,” Girard says. “It’s a great opportunity to support the local economy.”
Girard continues to look for ways to improve the program. One of her goals is to make the contracting process more equitable by finding more ways to support other, smaller culturally-specific agencies that want to get involved. She also wants to increase the frequency of the meal service across the several sites.
For people like Sequar that means more time socializing at the service center. It also means more chances to get connected with important services.
“The food is so good, but it’s not the only reason why I’m here,” he says. “Because I’m eating here with other people, I feel better. I feel closer to my community and eating food that reminds me of home.”
Meals are offered at different locations throughout the week.
Asian Meal Service
Where: Asian Health & Services Center
3430 SE Powell Blvd
Portland, OR 97202
When: Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:30 a.m.
Special notes: No eligibility criteria; relevant for Asian community
What: IRCO Senior Lunches
Where: IRCO Main Office
10301 NE Glisan St.
Portland, OR 97220
When: Tuesdays at 11 a.m.
Special notes: Relevant for immigrant and refugee communities 60 years and older
IRCO Africa House Meals
Where: IRCO Africa House
631 NE 102nd Ave
When: Thursdays at 12:30 p.m.
Special notes: Relevant for African immigrant and refugee communities
NAYA Congregate Meals
Where: Native American Youth and Family Center
5135 NE Columbia Blvd
Portland, OR 97218
When: Monday through Thursday at 11 a.m.
Special notes: Eligibility restricted to seniors and people with disabilities over 55 years
Where: El Programa Hispano (Gresham office)
138 NE 3rd St Suite 140
Gresham, OR 97030
When: Wednesdays at 10 a.m.
Special notes: No eligibility criteria; relevant for Latino community