23 Aug

A different kind of Portland food truck drives to fill the hunger of summer

In summer, Portland steadily expands its position as one the food truck and food cart capitals of the world. The city’s mobile cuisine extends from Belizean chicken and rice to Korean tacos to Maine lobster rolls, and wheels are becoming as central to our local menu as Cuisinarts.

Then there’s the St. Vincent de Paul Bluebird. Monday noon, an old school bus painted the color of a welcoming sky was parked by the Town Center Station Apartments, across from Clackamas Town Center. The bus, with a compressed kitchen that might not quality for a food truck reality TV series, served up waffles, oatmeal and fresh blueberries to a couple hundred kids and mothers, including a lot of folks who when school is out are what you might call available for lunch.

“A lot of folks who don’t get a summer lunch,” explained Charles Ashcraft, watching over two huge pots containing a classroom‘s worth of oatmeal, “are getting one today.”

A few yards from the Bluebird, a summer food line reached from the apartment complex’s courtyard out to the street, and had been forming for more than an hour before distribution opened. The tables were stocked with produce – potatoes, squash, oranges – from the Oregon Food Bank and 1,800 pounds of granola from Bob’s Red Mill. They were staffed by volunteers from Gracepointe Church in Milwaukie, and by some past and present clients now looking to help out.

Sylvia Herrera, who also volunteers to help other Latino parents at Milwaukie High School, got some translation help from her daughter Alexandra, an entering freshman planning to be a flight attendant.

“My mom says it helps deal with the hunger in children. It’s more energy for them,” voices Alexandra. “Especially in summer, they need a little help with the food.”

At a time when significant numbers of American children get half their calories in school – lunch, breakfast, snack – the summer school shutdown sharply interrupts nutrition for millions. And since families have single food budgets, the student cutoff ripples through the plates of parents and younger siblings. According to a study cited by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., hunger rises 34.2 percent during summer for families with schoolchildren, even for family members a long way from math tests.

Federal summer food programs, requiring a location and a way for kids to get there, reach only a small fraction of the millions of kids who normally get free or reduced-price school lunches. Increasingly, instead of waiting for kids to find their way to food in summer, hunger workers are exploring ways to bring the food to the kids.

That’s what brings the St. Vincent de Paul Bluebird food bus, and the tables covered with cabbage and potatoes, to Town Center Station Apartments, home to a significant number of kids from the nearby schools. The program’s been going on for five weeks this summer, with another week to go. According to Deborah Mason, nutrition program director for the Clackamas Service Center, attendance has been rising by about 15 or 20 a week.

“It gets pretty exciting,” she says, “that we’re actually feeding kids.” Gesturing toward the lines moving past the tables, mothers and elderly clients stacking backs of onions and bread on strollers, sit-down walkers and motorized carts, Mason points out, “You see what people are carrying. Not a lot of these people want to carry that on three buses to get home.”

She hopes to expand the idea to other locations next summer, and it could also expand beyond Clackamas. Other programs are considering bringing the idea to apartment complexes in Portland.

Monday, the Bluebird, helped by a $35,000 grant from Walmart, is doing a thriving business at Town Center Station. Like other, more fashionable Portland food trucks, it changes its location daily, spending most of its time out in more rural parts of the metro area. “As you get farther out,” explains Paul Kresek of St. Vincent de Paul, “the need diminishes slightly, but the resources drop off sharply,”

Inside the bus Monday, a mother reaches out her hands to her four- and six-year-old daughters, saying a blessing for them all before turning to the waffles and oatmeal. Another mother, sitting with her 10-year-old son who has a great deal to say about animals he’s admired this summer, talks about the benefits of the program.

“It’s wonderful,” she says, noting that it’s her first visit. “Sometimes you have a lot of bills you have to spend. Whatever is left, you have to make it.”

And with a little help, make it through the summer.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 8/20/14.