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Our Stone Soup

Pastor Brad Busiek gave me a great assignment – tag along and help Becky Bush. A member of Smith Memorial Presbyterian Church, Becky was checking in people who’d lined up in cars to get free groceries from the East County Food Pantry, which feeds about 250 people every week by handing out generous supplies of food - dry goods like pasta, fresh meat and milk and produce, and soon-to-expire items like fancy yogurt or take-out salads or layer cakes donated from restaurants and stores.

Becky checks everyone in, getting addresses, making sure income guidelines are met, asking how many adults live at home. Based on that number, folks could get one, two, three – up to six – sets of groceries. Each set consists of three overflowing bags or boxes. I placed the set number on each car windshield, so the kids up ahead know how many bags to load in the cars.

The faces of the hungry that day: A woman in a badly banged-up Subaru. A Vietnam veteran with a ball cap and a steady gaze. A Latinx family with a Townsend Farms employee pass on the dash. A mom of three still breastfeeding.

There were an unsettling number of couples who appeared to be past retirement age. One was Vera, who’d come with her husband. When the couple pulled up alongside Becky, Vera started to cry. “We’ve never had to do this before,” she said. “Never.”

Hundreds of our East County neighbors are going hungry. Becky’s check-in list, filled from Saturdays stretching back to December, tells the tale. Most East County Food Pantry clients are from Fairview, Wood Village, and Troutdale. (A few also come from Damascus, Corbett, Gresham, and Portland). The volunteers who power the pantry, run by Smith Memorial, are also locals. This project is us helping us.

The story of the pantry reminds me of the story of stone soup – where a need, a stone, and an empty pot become a meal thanks to the power of sharing. Someone brings carrots, someone else a potato, another a bit of beef. Soon, there’s soup to split among strangers.

The pantry started like that.

For years, a small food collection and distribution operation ran out of the Fairview Oaks and Fairview Woods apartment complexes. It was a way for neighbors to help neighbors. When the COVID crisis hit hard last summer, the need skyrocketed, and a more formal food box operation moved to the MLA Public Charter School parking lot on Halsey Street. The City of Fairview stepped in and provided $16,000 for this effort.

But the food boxes provided by a nonprofit were expensive. Winter was coming. The food operation needed cover from the weather – and it needed to serve more hungry people.

In September, local leaders started talking. We need a more permanent solution to our hunger problem. Can we start our own food pantry? Fairview Mayor Brian Cooper called on Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann for help.

And so Stegmann did.

Stegmann and Nathan Clark, her director of partnerships, hosted a handful of video calls in October and November with Mayor Cooper, Wood Village Mayor Scott Harden, State Rep. Zach Hudson (who at the time was still a Troutdale City Councilor), State Sen. Chris Gorsek (who at the time was still sitting in Hudson’s state rep. seat) and other city and county staff.

On the calls, leaders talked about where the pantry might go and how it might be funded. What could they build that’s sustainable? That could serve enough people? That they could afford?

The making of stone soup began.

Pastor Brad Busiek offered Smith Memorial Presbyterian Church, the oldest house of worship in Fairview, to host the pantry and serve as its fiscal sponsor – a critical relationship that would allow the church to take in donations and grants on behalf of the pantry.

Nathan Clark with the county worked with the Oregon Food Bank to set up a partnership to provide free fresh produce and low-cost staples like peanut butter and pasta. But in order to store the produce, the church needed a refrigerator. A really, really big refrigerator.

With support from Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Stegmann stepped in with $17,395 in CARES Act COVID relief funds, a gift that is helping the church to buy a 20-foot refrigerated container. Gorsek and his chief of staff, Jason Hitzert, negotiated a free installation from a local union.

More ingredients began to fill the pot. Smith Memorial members gave a total of $5,000 for food and supplies. The City of Wood Village put in $2,000. The City of Troutdale gave $2,500. The Gresham Rotary and Mayor Cooper each kicked in $1,000.

Smith Memorial tossed in a huge serving of time.

Pastor Busiek works about 20 hours a week on the food pantry, which now has its own oversight board, a steering committee, a bookkeeper, an operations director, a site supervisor, and a volunteer coordinator who oversees dozens of volunteers who work four days a week to pick up, sort, store, pack, load, and deliver food every Saturday. Those 100 sets of groceries – 300 bags and boxes of food – get loaded into cars or delivered directly to the doors of people who can’t make the trip every Saturday morning to the church.

“Making sure everything is COVID compliant is another challenge,” Busiek says. “This has been a huge project, with lots of logistics and lots of partners. It’s amazing how it all came together.”

Stegmann is proud that so many local leaders came together to create something new and necessary – and lasting.

"Before the pandemic, East County residents already suffered from lower incomes, higher rent burdens, and greater transportation challenges,” she said. “For many, COVID-19 made an already unbearable situation even worse. And I knew we had to help. While it has been a devastating year, collaborating on efforts like this remind me of how much we can accomplish when we work together for the greater good."

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