Crews load food boxes into cars at St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton. (Courtesy St. Cecilia Parish)
Crews load food boxes into cars at St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton. (Courtesy St. Cecilia Parish)
" We are thriving with this project. What a shot of Holy Spirit adrenaline to our faith community.
" Betsy Taylor Resurrection Parish staffer who is leading food box distribution in the church’s parking lot
The Archdiocese of Portland and its parishes so far have helped distribute about 150,000 boxes of federal food aid to northwestern Oregon families rocked by the coronavirus outbreak and the economic downturn that followed.

Supplies are expected to last well into the summer, perhaps longer.

In Oregon, about almost a quarter million jobs disappeared because of the pandemic.

Matt Cato, the archdiocesan staffer who is coordinating distribution from parishes, said that the need for food is about to surge again. A federal boost to unemployment and eviction deferral programs are ending. And in much of Oregon, it’s harvest time, meaning low-income agricultural workers are arriving by the thousands.

The program, called “Food, Family, Faith” is the right response for the times, said Cato, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace.

The boxes contain dairy products and fresh fruits and vegetables assembled by and transported to parishes by Pacific Coast Fruit, which won the federal contract from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The triple aim of the aid is to feed people, help local companies and support farmers. Other companies and agencies are handling food box distribution out of Medford and Bend.

Northwest Oregon parishes that so far have agreed to serve as distribution sites are St. Vincent de Paul in Salem, St. Edward in Keizer, Resurrection in Tualatin, St. Anthony in Tigard, St. Cecilia in Beaverton, St. Matthew in Hillsboro, St. Alexander in Cornelius, St. Pius X in Northwest Portland, Holy Redeemer in North Portland, Ascension in Southeast Portland, St. Joseph the Worker in Southeast Portland, St. John the Baptist in Milwaukie, Christ the King in Milwaukie, Our Lady of La Vang in Happy Valley and St. Henry in Gresham.

Many food box recipients drive up in cars while others arrive by bicycle or on foot. Some take the bus.

No matter how they come, they are generally grateful. A woman who had never taken charity before wrote to the archdiocese.

“As someone outside of your faith community, I thought it was especially important that I acknowledge the far-reaching impact your organization is having on those in need at this difficult economic juncture,” wrote the woman, who lost her work in the hard hit meetings and events industry. “The weekly food box has made an enormous impact on my household. Last week nearly 50% of our calories came from the USDA food box.”

She said her household, including children, need to save money for medications.

At St. Cecilia, a man who has fallen on hard times came for food. Within hours he was back to volunteer and has kept coming to help every day.

Parish staff and volunteers have stepped forward to shoulder much of the load — 4,000 boxes per day in northwest Oregon — and have felt energized in the process.

“This has been a great work of mercy,” Betsy Taylor of Resurrection Parish said in a note to Cato. “We are thriving with this project. What a shot of Holy Spirit adrenaline to our faith community.”

Taylor, who handles teen and young adult ministry at the parish, said the pandemic has forced the parish to reimagine ministry and find new ways to build community. “This project came along and gave us a great opportunity,” she explained. “It got people together.”

Taylor has friends at mega churches all around the area and she has formed partnerships. Members of those churches come to Resurrection to get boxes and deliver them to people in need in apartments, houses and small farms.

One day, volunteers took a load of boxes to people in the parking lot of the Dollar Store in Tigard. Someone suggested they next go around the corner to the laundromat and within five minutes another 60 boxes were given out.

“The need is there,” said Jennelle Phillips, who oversees distribution at St. Cecilia. “I love it. It works well, and it has been a blessing.”

Cars line up three or four hours ahead of time. One day, the parish gave out 1,000 boxes and shared words of greeting and encouragement with all recipients.

That’s a lot of good will going out into the world, said Phillips, adult faith formation coordinator at St. Cecilia.

“It has brought members of the staff together,” she added. “I feel like it’s a team building activity.”

“Every week we do it, it keeps increasing,” said Ed Andolino, the Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus at Christ the King Parish in Milwaukie. He is overseeing his parish’s distribution. At Christ the King, a team of Spanish-speaking Knights have been a big help and a welcoming presence.

Andolino says those who receive boxes represent a sampling of society — young families, homeless singles, old couples.

One of the busiest sites is the new Our Lady of La Vang Church in Happy Valley, where as many as 150 cars have lined up at a time.

There are logistics to handle as trucks make their way twice per week to parishes all over the Portland area with thousands of boxes. Cato handles the shipping communiques and many other details.

What keeps him going is the awareness that the work is helping families in need, including the suddenly unemployed, the lonely and the elderly.

“It’s relational,” Cato said, explaining that parishioners are building bonds with each other and the archdiocese while they accompany and encounter people in need — as Pope Francis has taught.

Ed Moore, with wife Terri, leads distribution at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Salem.

“This is the best food box program I’ve ever seen,” said Moore, a retired Boeing machinist and contract administrator who has volunteered at food sites for decades. The boxes arrive ready to hand out and are full of high quality things like fresh milk, meat, fruits and vegetables.

“It has developed community in our neighborhoods,” Moore said. “God is blessing us with this.”