April 21, 2020

Over the last month, Meals on Wheels People delivered almost 60,000 meals to older adults — an 84 percent increase from previous weeks. School districts served almost 9,700 families across more than 52 meal sites. And physical distancing shelters provided more than 27,000 meals to people experiencing homelessness.

Those staggering numbers reflect a skyrocketing demand for food resources as communities across Multnomah County cope with COVID-19. The impact is especially felt by older adults and people of color. That need was highlighted in a Tuesday, April 21, briefing before the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. 

“We are anticipating the need to continue to grow because the growth has really increased week over week,” said Lee Girard, director of Aging, Disability & Veterans Services.

Meal providers reorganize services for older adults

Usually, nutrition providers serve older adults in congregate settings and home deliveries. But after the pandemic hit, congregate meal sites closed and the need for home-delivered meals surged. 

Store to Door delivers groceries to seniors' doorsteps.

In response, Multnomah County shifted its focus to getting food delivered to people who needed it. With $470,000 from the Families First Act and support from the County’s Emergency Operations Center, the County and its partners are ensuring older adults get meals delivered to their doorsteps. Between March 11 and April 19 alone, Meals on Wheels People served 59,407 meals to participants’ homes.

The virus has also caused culturally specific providers to shift their focus. Several County contractors, including El Programa Hispano Católico, Asian Health & Services Center, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) and the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest (NARA), have pivoted from hosting meal services for communities of color to working with local restaurants to deliver culturally appropriate food directly to homes.

Multnomah County has amended community partners’ contracts so they can provide home-delivered meals through culturally specific restaurants or expand their own meal programs to increase meal and grocery delivery. Among community partners, meal services have increased 25 percent to 76 percent, while costs have increased 37 percent to 102 percent.

“Our goal has been to expand the flexibility of our contracts with our partners,” Girard said.

To meet the unprecedented need for delivery services, the County has also gotten more creative with its transportation contracts. In partnership with Ride Connection, TriMet LIFT and Store to Door, the County has expanded its ability to serve clients with grocery and meal delivery. 

SUN Community Schools, Bienestar de la Familia expand grocery and meal distribution

Years ago, Multnomah County began working with school districts to create food pantry sites as an experiment. The service has long since proven itself — and it’s been a vital resource for keeping families fed during COVID-19. “When schools closed we were quickly able to lead the pivot to consider how we were going to continue distributing food and groceries for families,” said Peggy Samolinski, Youth & Family Services Division Director

The County and its partners quickly reorganized how they distribute that food. Now, 20 schools provide grocery distribution in partnership with the Oregon Food Bank. Another 19 school sites have “focused” grocery distribution through backpacks. And 52 schools are offering “grab & go” meals. In addition, two school districts are delivering meals to neighborhoods using school bus drivers. 

So far, the program has served more than 9,700 households across Multnomah County. Across the individual distribution sites, 55 to 400 families are being served on a given day. Twelve of the sites have seen more than a 100 percent increase in families seeking services over the last three weeks.

“This is just one of the things where it’s really critical when you think of people, especially children, struggling to get enough food to eat during this time,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said. “It’s really good that we’re working with partners to get food delivered to families in need.”

Bienestar de la Familia in Northeast Portland has also embraced its role as a meal provider. The community center, which predominantly serves Latinx and Somali communities, has seen a 42 percent increase in participants at its twice-monthly Mercado meal site.

Many of the people Bienestar serves need culturally appropriate food options. Instead of serving meals, Bienestar has been giving gift cards to local grocery stores to allow families in need to purchase their own food. In just eight days, the program delivered 100 gift cards worth $50 to $100.

Among the families who received the gift cards, 97 percent reported being impacted by COVID-19 in some way. “The gift card really helped me,” said one participant. “I was able to buy bread, baby wipes, soap, fruit, toilet paper and more. It’s been hard to take care of all my kids now that they are home from school.”

COVID-19 creates new food crisis for people who are homeless

The pandemic has hit unsheltered communities especially hard. With the closure of meal sites and the loss of income opportunities for people experiencing homelessness, demand has surged at the few sites still serving food. Blanchet House has seen a 53 percent increase in demand since March 23. 

In response, the County worked out an emergency contract with Blanchet House and St. Francis Dining Hall to support 10,000 meals per week. Between April 6 and 18, the two sites served 22,522 meals to participants.

Meanwhile, outreach teams report that food and water are the most consistently requested items among unsheltered people in outlying areas. Scores of volunteers and providers have stepped up in response. Through the Joint Office of Homeless Services, about 2,000 gallons of have been delivered through the Joint Office’s downtown supply center.

Since mid-March, the County moved some 375 existing shelter beds into four physical distancing shelters. The County has also opened two medical motels with 120 combined rooms, so people in shelters or medical settings who have symptoms can recuperate away from congregate settings.

All sites require three meals a day per guest. To meet that need, the County, through a relationship with restaurant and vocational program Stone Soup, has partnered with nearly a dozen local businesses to ensure everyone gets fed. As of April 20, these new shelters have served 27,000 meals. 

Looking ahead, program leaders say they will continue to look at new solutions to meet the unprecedented needs of older adults, youth and families, communities of color, and homeless neighbors with and without shelter. Ideas include public/private partnerships, public information campaigns focused on public benefits, vouchers, gift cards, and public assistance systems, and expansion of food delivery services.

“It is so heartbreaking to think about people not having food,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal told the panelists. “It’s always heartbreaking, and I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and flexibility you are all showing.”