Metro Portland

Blanchet House Empowers the Community to Meet the Need for Food During COVID-19

The morning after Oregon limited indoor dining because of COVID-19, a long line of tired and hungry people were able to pick up breakfast and coffee at Blanchet House, a nonprofit social services organization located in downtown Portland. In fewer than 24 hours, staff developed a takeaway meal service that ensured everyone in need of a meal could receive one. Preparing 1,000 hot meals a day isn’t new to Blanchet House, we’ve been doing it since 1952, but serving to-go style during COVID-19 presented a whole host of challenges.

As schools and businesses closed, volunteers who usually help prepare and serve meals canceled. Food donations became less frequent from grocery stores as people were panic buying large quantities. Takeout containers were not easy to come by. Menus needed to be created by volunteer chefs to suit to-go service. Blanchet House staff addressed these daily challenges while continuing to feed homeless and hungry people three times a day.

Within weeks Blanchet House was serving an average of 2,000 meals a day—double our usual numbers. The increase in need can be attributed to a variety of factors—as day shelters and other services closed, people living on the street sought out Blanchet House. In addition, organizations who operate shelter housing were forced to limit operations so they needed food for their residents. Then the county called to ask if Blanchet House could deliver meals to people staying at three new outdoor emergency shelters. We said “yes” to all, determined to meet the growing need in ways that we could.

Members of the community reached out to ask how they could help. Due to the circumstances of COVID-19, many people didn’t feel safe coming to volunteer, but they wanted to physically support the cause in some way. That’s when staff from Jesuit High School came up with a plan to hold a sack lunch drive. Their students have volunteered at Blanchet House for decades so they were familiar with the mission. From home, participating students were instructed to pack brown bags with a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a wrapped snack. They arranged a day to drop off the sack lunches while safely socially distanced.

Jesuit students and their families made 15,000 sack lunches during that first drive, exceeding anyone’s expectations. Students wrote words of hope and encouragement on the sacks and decorated them. The response from Blanchet House’s meal guests was overwhelmingly positive. Guests loved the drawings and greatly appreciated being able to take multiple bags back to their campsites. The sack lunches could also be easily transported to shelters and campsites.

"These bags are positive ripples in the pond, instead of all the negative things in our lives.” Michael, a meal guest, said of the drawings and notes written on the sack lunches.

Soon, other schools signed up to host sack lunch drives—Lincoln High School, Catlin Gabel, Central Catholic, and many more. In addition to the students, compassionate people across metro Portland joined in. They loved that they could help from home. From March to July 2020, the Portland community made over 100,000 sack lunches which took enormous strain off Blanchet House’s staff, volunteers, and resources. An Oregon Community Recovery Grant helped to fund the additional staff, transportation costs, and infrastructure needed to carry out the sack lunch program. Without this critical funding Blanchet House would not have been able to meet the increased need for their meals or engage their community in meaningful service during COVID-19.

Learn more about the sack lunch program and all the ways people can safely assist Blanchet House during COVID-19 at BlanchetHouse.org/Get-Involved.

Photo by Julie Showers