The 44-foot-long bus, parked next to St. Aloysius Parish in Estacada, contains a stove, sinks, refrigerator and coffee pot. The mobile kitchen provides up to 170 meals each stop. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
The 44-foot-long bus, parked next to St. Aloysius Parish in Estacada, contains a stove, sinks, refrigerator and coffee pot. The mobile kitchen provides up to 170 meals each stop. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
ESTACADA — “Oh, hello girls, I’ve been waiting for you.”

The smell of baking chocolate chip cookies and the cheery welcome of diner Barbara Jordan, 78, greet two women who sit down to enjoy a lunch of pizza, fruit and juice — plus a cookie for dessert. The friends chat in a cozy space that in many ways could be any unpretentious cafe on a drizzly day. Instead it’s a 44-foot-long St. Vincent de Paul bus serving homeless and low-income guests in the parking lot of St. Aloysius Parish here.

In Portland, places such as Blanchet House and St. André Bessette Parish offer free warm meals, but such ministries are more limited in the semirural areas outside the metropolitan area. The mobile kitchen is a way to help reach people in outlying communities.

For 89-year-old Betty McDaniel, who resides up the street from the church in a senior living community, the cafe on wheels is “an opportunity to get out of my little apartment and to visit with others,” she says. “Plus, they treat us like family.”

“Everyone is so kind,” adds Jordan from across the table.

Along with the Estacada stop, the bus travels to Clackamas County’s Canby and Washington County’s St. Matthew Parish in Hillsboro and Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton. Some locations receive weekly visits, others biweekly.

While hunger has been decreasing in Oregon, it remains persistently high. Nearly 1 in 7 Oregon households were food insecure between 2014-16, according to a report cited by the nonprofit Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. Rural communities are seeing a continual rise in rates of food insecurity and hunger.

The demographics of the St. Vincent de Paul guests vary. Hillsboro guests include many who are homeless, while Estacada sees quite a few low-income seniors, according to Diana Day, a St. Vincent de Paul employee. Day wears many hats, including cook, driver and “chief bottle washer,” she says with a laugh.

“People joke a lot, and it’s a lively atmosphere on the bus,” chimes in Jordan.

Typically two to four volunteers, most often parishioners, help Day take orders and serve food.

Judy Ziegelmayer, former president of the St. Aloysius conference of St. Vincent de Paul, said she loves volunteering in the mobile kitchen. “It’s great people who come in, and a lot of people know each other,” she says after scooping out a ball of cookie dough. Ziegelmayer says her faith motivates her. “Serving here is a way to give to others and to just be helpful.”

The original St. Vincent de Paul mobile kitchen was in operation for about six years before it was replaced with the newer model in 2016. St. Vincent de Paul employees — ever economical — decided to outfit the new bus with equipment from the older one. The vehicle includes a stove, sinks, refrigerator and freezer, a food warmer, and coffee pot. Rows of tables and benches line the sides of the bus.

Guests may take a to-go bag home, and there are sizable boxes of food offered at the St. Vincent de Paul pantry — just steps away from the bus. During the few hours the pantry is open every-other week, around 100 families will receive 120 boxes of food. A recent box included loaves of bread, frozen meat and pizza, and granola bars.

Between 56 and 170 people are fed on the bus at the different locations each visit. More than 14,160 meals have been served this year. Food is prepped early in the week, and the menu includes easy-to-heat items like casseroles, hot dogs and grilled cheese.

“Guests in Hillsboro love our biscuits and gravy,” says Day, adding that all the food is “awesome.”

“If I won’t eat it, I won’t serve it,” she says.

There’s always a dessert option, and during the holidays there are pies.

“They have good stuff here,” says Wayne Lerch, finishing up his lunch. He says one free meal a couple times a month isn’t going to change his financial situation, but “every little bit helps and I’m grateful.”