Oregon Department of Human Services Feeds Thousands after Wildfires

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How the ODHS Distributes Three Meals a Day to 3,000 People Recovering From September Wildfires

STATEWIDE – The seemingly insurmountable job before Jeff Gilbert was to procure healthy food, and then distribute it three times a day – breakfasts, lunches and dinners — to 3,000 people wherever they are staying – for many months.  

Gilbert usually works as an Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) Self-Sufficiency Program manager. He’s now on loan to ODHS Emergency Management leading the statewide feeding task force to help people recovering from the September wildfires. Oregon’s emergency operations plan gives ODHS responsibility to support Oregonians during emergencies and recovery, in keeping with the department’s primary role to assist people in meeting their basic needs while moving toward independence.

Oregon is now facing two crises – COVID-19 and the wildfires that destroyed whole towns and burned down more than 4,000 structures, including many homes. The fires and COVID also took peoples’ businesses and jobs, leaving at least 3,000 people needing food daily. The department, through Gilbert, has taken over from the Red Cross the emergency feeding and the sheltering of people in need since October 17.

“This emergency feeding operation is very different due to COVID,” Gilbert said.  “Normally we can feed people in congregate care such as large tents or convention centers. Then, when they leave to go to temporary housing or hotels or motels, the feeding ends. We are now anything but normal. People’s homes burned down and with COVID there is no congregate care. Most people had to go to motels. There just isn’t bountiful food sitting around. We have to make meals for them and deliver them when there is no contact allowed. Also, how do you communicate dietary and cultural food needs issues and then cook and distribute the meals?”

What Gilbert and the task force team did was contract with five vendors throughout Oregon. The vendors then contracted with food suppliers, food processors and restaurants in their communities to provide and deliver the meals directly to people wherever they were staying. Using area businesses has helped the local economies also – especially restaurants who have been severely impacted by COVID restrictions.

Rogue Food Unites is one of those vendors. Adam Danforth, the co-founder, usually works as a butcher who travels the country and world teaching about whole animal butchery.

“I try to inform people’s understanding of what meat quality means in relationship to the environment around them and also to foster strength in communities through food. So, doing this type of food operation didn’t feel like a total shift. We are still working to strengthen our own communities,” he said.

Rogue Food Unites first worked with the Red Cross, starting a few days after the fires swept through Oregon September 8, 2020. Rogue Food Unites coordinates getting 2,000 meals a day to people in Deschutes, Douglas, Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties. He estimates he’s helped get 120,000 meals to people.

“We identify where people are and how many people there are and then match the need with local restaurants according to their capacity. We serve people in 25 hotels, four distribution sites, RV Parks and more than 400 dinners door-to-door. We serve people whose homes were burned, or they’re out of work, or their business was destroyed. Our main goal is to recognize the struggle people are going through and to give them support through this trauma by delivering hot and nutritious food to them,” Danforth said.

The feeding task force and the vendors have worked particularly hard to provide culturally appropriate foods – especially for Thanksgiving meals – even if some people did not celebrate this holiday.

“We wanted to be culturally sensitive,” Gilbert said.  “We had a lot of conversations. We involved Latinx restaurants and chefs to decide what those menus should look like — if you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving what would still be a great meal? We asked for input from evacuees. We needed to know when to send a meal — early or later in the day.  A lot of extra food was delivered to families for the long weekend. It went off exceptionally well. Every vendor exceeded their contract requirement and without any compensation.”

Danforth said his group delivered 1,500 meals on Thanksgiving.

“There were full bags we called ‘A Meal United.’ We delivered cross-cultural foods, such as tamales, Mexican pastries, mashed potatoes, turkey, personal tarts, truffles, nut mixes and other snacks.

“At the heart of all of this is that we’re trying to redefine what relief aid food can look like. This is what people deserve. This food created by these restaurants is the same quality and healthfulness they would serve their own clientele,” Danforth said.

Rogue Food Unites Feeding thousands during Thanksgiving. Image courtesy of ODHS

Throughout this seemingly monumental task the people involved have been touched by their experiences.

For Danforth, it was an opportunity to connect with his own community in a way he had never done before.

“The reliance on neighbors and friends was essential for the wellbeing of these communities before the fires. But with COVID, that also has been lost. The fires and COVID isolated people. Rogue Food Unites has been able to provide that underlying support through food. We’re saying, ‘We’re still here. We’re still connecting you with your community and your restaurants through the type of food your culture wants to eat.’  

“It’s all helpful to let people know there is still a sense of normalcy. I hope we can continue to help in bigger and bigger ways. No reason this model can’t work elsewhere. It is inevitable there will be future emergencies. This shows the opportunity for food businesses to reconsider their role in supporting their communities that is also financially viable for them,” Danforth said.

Gilbert met and talked with many evacuees in Jackson County.

“Every single person was so kind, understanding, appreciative and thankful. Those are the stories that are the hallmarks for this situation. This is the real story behind this crisis. Oregon has stepped in to make sure people are in a safe, clean, secure environment.

It is an amazing effort. It’s not just a wildfire effort, it is a humanitarian effort.

“There is a sense of humanity – whether it is from someone who lost their home or a motel worker or a vendor, the hope that I see through all of these efforts – I have never seen to this scale — it’s everyone this touches – everyone who is helping out. It’s touched a part of their heart. It’s been overwhelming to me,” Gilbert said.

The statewide emergency food vendors include:

  • Rogue Food Unites; lead contact Adam Danforth; Deschutes, Douglas, Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties
  • Cravings Fine Food, lead contact Colleen Brainerd, Lane County
  • B’nai B’rith, lead contacts Becci Bazen, Michelle Koplan, Allison Kaufman; Lincoln County
  • The Kitchen on Court Street, lead contacts Jim Vu, Bernard Malherbe, Nancy Hendricks; Marion County
  • The Salvation Army, lead contact Rashad Bauman; Benton, Clackamas, Linn, Marion, Multnomah, Polk counties

If you’d like to be part of this feeding operation or know someone who’d like  to be, please email [email protected].

About Author

Christine Stone is a Communications Officer with the Department of Human Services.

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