Julie Gray
Julie Gray

With unemployment spiking during the coronavirus outbreak, three Portland-area Catholic organizations have teamed up with city and Multnomah County officials to thwart an expected surge in hunger.

Catholic Charities of Oregon, Blanchet House and St. Francis Dining Hall have created a ramped-up triangle of meal sites at a time when many small feeding programs have closed. The three locations already are serving thousands of meals per week, mostly at Blanchet House, which serves 10,000 per week alone. With city and county emergency funds, they hope to push the total number closer to 15,000.

In addition to hunger among homeless people, jobless rates and a lack of basics in many grocery stores mean some households are having trouble putting meals on the table.  

“We envision that food insecurity and scarcity will become prevalent in the next weeks,” said Deacon Rick Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon.

Blanchet House already has doubled the number of meals it serves. More families and twice as many women are in line over the past month. 

“We are feeding a lot of new people, new faces every day,” said Scott Kerman, executive director of Blanchet House.

Kerman and his peers in social service are not surprised. They knew the job loss would mean more people lacking food. “A lot of people were living on the edge of homelessness already,” said Kerman.

Catholic Charities manages 800 units of low-cost housing. After checking in with residents, it became clear that about 20% lacked the food needed for the next few days.

“Many people are having to make a choice between food and rent,” Birkel said.

The three organizations are quickly developing an infrastructure to get food to people who need it.

With Blanchet House in the Old Town section of Northwest Portland, St. Francis in the inner east side and Catholic Charities farther southeast, the network covers much of Portland’s core. Blanchet serves three meals per day, St. Francis two and Catholic Charities one.

The challenge is getting more supplies. Before the pandemic, about 75% of food Blanchet served was donated by the Oregon Convention Center, restaurants and hotels. Those business are now closed. Even the Oregon Food Bank is predicting shortages.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is stepping up with a major donation of supplies. At press time, the church had a truck en route to Catholic Charities with 45,000 pounds of food.

The Catholic feeding network is creating jobs for some laid off chefs. The emergency funds will help pay their wages, plus purchase food and fund transport for meals.

“I refer to this as a natural disaster,” said Kerman. “The only way we are going to meet the needs of our community and the suffering that is happening is through these kinds of partnerships.”

Kerman thinks the network will be stronger in the future and will need to continue, since the fallout from the coronavirus crash may endure.