PORTLAND, Ore. – It took an hour to hand out all the meals. By 5:30 p.m., the number would eclipse 1,000. Next week, they’ll hand out even more. What started out as a small distribution from one kitchen – 65 meals, in the first week of Portland’s COVID-19 precautions – has seen volunteers respond, and donations grow. It took three locations across the Portland metropolitan area to meet the new need.
Or did it even take the full hour? Signs to the north and east of the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Regence location in North Portland’s New Columbia neighborhood announced the distribution time as 4:30 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. Both signs were hand drawn, on whiteboards arranged, respectively, across from a park with a bicycle repair station and a large community garden. Shortly after four o’clock, two women sheepishly began to line up, keeping their heads bowed lest eye contact saw them shooed away. Parents had been admonished for lining up too early, before.
By the time they got their food, their line began curving from parking lot to street, with a drive-thru option serving those who came in cars. Service was quick enough that the line never grew longer than eight, but for 45 minutes, the flow from the neighborhood was steady. Five meals per child as part of Oregon Department of Education’s distribution, with donations and volunteer-prepped food meeting the needs of the adults. The largest households had needs for nine, 10 people, leaving those in charge of pickup carrying boxes of milk, yogurt, cereal and Jersey Mike’s subs away from the parking lot. By 5:15 p.m., only the subs remained, with April Loschiavo, a Director at the Boys & Girls Club, promising there would be more next time.
“Come back next week,” she called from behind her mask at a group of three standing in the lot’s driveway. “Four-thirty. Monday. We’ll have more.”
By then, the bags of sandwiches that lined the sidewalk behind the B&GC were gone. The ping-pong table that held the meals brought in from Hillsboro – beans, rice and lentils, all still warm – had been folded up and taken back into the club’s quiet building, left scarcely used by its COVID closure. The rolling whiteboards joined it, as did the newly emptied boxes and bags collected by the eight people staffing the event.
It was an even divide between employees and volunteers; full-timers and those donating a couple hours of their lives. Boys & Girls Club had four, but so did Stand Together, the Portland Timbers and Thorns FC's community impact arm. Two people would interact with families. A third recorded the numbers. Three more would pack bags and boxes. Another made sure social distancing was observed, and cars maintained a logical flow. A final person floated between jobs.
Over the course of two hours, a parking lot that could house perhaps 12 cars became the distribution center for a neighborhood. Then it disappeared, completing a routine that will continue and grow until the COVID-19 precautions are over. Eight people. Two hours. Eleven hundred meals.
Part of that routine now involves a sandwich shop on Northeast Broadway, extending the evening’s effort well beyond eight people. For weeks, Jersey Mike’s had been talking to Stand Together about how they could get involved. The sandwich chain, a prominent sponsor for the Thorns, had already supplied the team with some meals during their lockdown. But with the company’s owner having given their stores an allotment of donations – the 2,000 giant-sized, 15-inch subs equating to roughly 6,000 meals per shop – its Portland locations were looking for an outlet. Conversations with Stand Together began in early April.
“What people don’t know is that all the people who work here are local,” Amanda Graham, an advisor with Jersey Mike’s franchising explains, describing the national chain’s Portland links. The Thorns crest on the back of her car gives her allegiances away, as does the Jersey Mike’s hat which, on its left side, is emblazoned with the same logo. The people managing the city’s stores, she says, are all connected to Portland.
We talk about the team, the league’s marketing, the chances for Jersey Mike’s to get more involved in the National Women’s Soccer League. You can tell she is a devoted fan. She’s spent a lot of time thinking about how the league could be marketed. Her main topic, though, is the 50 bags and boxes that line a counter across the location’s front window. She’s at the location to help.
“This is what we’re meant to do,” Graham says, describing an initiative made possible by the franchise’s owner. Money from his personal accounts is going into franchises to enable these donations. As a result, four employees, one adorning a Jersey Mike’s Thorns jacket, have been working through the day to hit the shop’s 300-sandwich goal. Stand Together representatives will arrive at 3 p.m. to take the 375 linear feet of food to a Boys & Girls Club approximately five miles north.
Shortly after three, their two cars are nearly full, packed from trunk to passenger seats with subs destined for the facility next to Rosa Parks School. Those deliveries, though, are less than half the evening’s load. From Hillsboro, a van with 200 meals, prepared by Stand Together volunteers, provides another portion of the night’s givings, as does a second van arriving from a Foster Road facility in the city’s southeast. Eight people were on the ground to distribute the work, but going back well into the day, more than double that number helped make the distribution possible.
When those distributions happened a month ago, at the beginning of the COVID-19 quarantine, Sophia Ferere could only accommodate 65 meals. At the time, that was all the B&GC manager had space for in the kitchen shared with the adjacent school. But that number was also a function of the mandate from the Oregon Department of Education. ODE supplies meals for school children, not their broader families.
That limit makes the adults’ part of the distributions new. Even on this Monday, there’s an age range identified on one of the signs: “Ages 1-18,” though “(youth do not need to be present).” Each child in a household would get five meals’ worth of food, as well as milk and snacks, like yogurt, but they had to be present to claim their allotment. Now, adults can pick up the food. Just come by, give your name and a number - the number of children in your home - and it’s yours. Also, if you mention how many adults are in your house, you’ll get sandwiches, beans, rice and lentils.
This is what Mondays in New Columbia have become. As the COVID phase has processed, the amount of food being distributed has, too, as have the donations. Stand Together donated food early on and has since also helped rally volunteers. Now, Jersey’s Mike will be involved, with facilities like those in Hillsboro and on Foster helping the Regence location scale.
And it's not just this location. That’s just the Monday distribution. On Wednesday, Jersey Mike’s subs are on their way to the Boys & Girls Club’s Rockwood location, in Portland’s deep Southeast. It’s only 100 subs at the spot, for now, but if the pattern in New Columbia holds true, that number will grow.
Next Monday in North Portland, that growth is almost guaranteed. The sub sandwiches will be there again, as will the food vanned in from Hillsboro and Foster. But there will be pizzas next week, with other partners potentially involved. As the need for food has emerged, the need for apologetic “come back next week[s]” has diminished. Each time, April has to apologize to fewer and fewer.
A month ago, the number of meals was 65. Now it’s 1,000. How much that number rises before our COVID phase ends is difficult to foresee. Who would have predicted it would reach 1,000? As of next Monday, though, that high will surely grow.