22 Nov

Oregon chefs stir up action against hunger

Every year, Oregon food fans have more reason to be thankful.

The Oregon food scene, not only in Portland but also in areas from Bend to wine country, gets ever livelier, with more restaurants and chefs getting national recognition and the state growing more wine labels than trees. Each September, the Portland Feast is a national food event – described by Forbes magazine this year as “one of the nation’s hottest food festivals” – and Oregon is now a prominent presence in the kind of food magazines where once it was seen only in state tourism ads.

It’s enough to make you raise a drumstick to Oregon’s food situation.

Assuming, of course, you have a drumstick.

In another signpost of the Oregon food situation, in September the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued its catchily named volume, “Household Food Security in the United States, 2016,” which found that Oregon was still above the national average in food insecurity. The survey found that while 13 percent of Americans weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from, the Oregon number was 14.6 percent – and that the great number of other states in that category were well south of here. Moreover, while both California and Washington had significantly improved their numbers since the last survey, Oregon hadn’t.

This year’s “Map the Meal Gap” survey, from the food bank alliance Feeding America, calculated that 22.5 percent of Oregon kids lived in food-insecure households, a number that’s also more like the Confederacy than the Coast. In some Eastern and Southern Oregon counties, the number towers much higher, like a fir tree.

On hunger levels, Oregon may not be where it was in its chart-topping 1990s, but we’re still a fleet of food carts away from where we should be. For a high-profile food state, we have some considerable gaps in our menu.

Some of the people most involved with Oregon’s high food profile are also concerned about our high hunger profile. Oregon chefs, the ones currently on the phone with national food writers or putting the last touches on their Thanksgiving menus, tend to take hunger very personally.

Gregory Gourdet, chef at Departure on the top floor of The Nines hotel, notes that working downtown and living on the other side of the Burnside Bridge – and commuting by bicycle – he gets a view of what Portland street life is like. And working with Urban Gleaners, which collects surplus food for distribution to schools and other locations, “I see the neighborhoods they go into.”

Like a lot of Portland chefs, Gourdet – a 2015 finalist in Bravo’s Top Chef competition – cooks at the Feast, which since 2012 has raised $300,000 for child hunger programs, this year for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. Producing dazzling meals for hundreds of people a night, he thinks of the gap between that diet and the one facing so many Oregonians.

It’s why Jose Chesa, chef of Ataula, prepared the annual fund-raising event for Partners this year, and looks for other ways to help. He explains, “You see the extent of consumerism, and the experiences around the holidays, it’s a time to think that there’s a lot of hunger.”

It’s why a dozen Portland chefs, including John Gorham of Toro Bravo and Matt Christianson of Urban Farmer, rode bicycles in Chef Cycle for three days in May to raise money for No Kid Hungry. It’s why two Portland catering chefs, Allison Lew and Camille Bell, have volunteered hundreds of hours for the Oregon Food Bank.

As Gourdet, who says he’ll be looking for a shelter to help on Thanksgiving, explains, “There is a power in what we do.”

Or as Jose Andres, superstar Washington, D.C., chef, said last year, “Hunger is not a problem for us to solve. It is an opportunity for us to seize.”

Which is also not a bad way to approach Thanksgiving.

This year, Andres – a Spanish immigrant who canceled a deal at the Trump International D.C. Hotel after Donald Trump’s statements on immigration – found an opportunity to seize. After Hurricane Maria levelled Puerto Rico, he flew down and used his resources – including a massive paella plan that can feed hundreds – to set up a feeding operation that became the largest on the island. Last week, Andres announced that he would continue the effort through Christmas.

Which is why Lily Rose just wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Jose Andres is totally the hero we need right now.”

And as we’re particularly reminded this time of year, so is anyone who feeds hungry people.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 11/19/17.

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