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Portland emergency food program seeing more than 10 times as many people as it did pre-pandemic

In October, the Northeast Emergency Food Program served 13 times the number of people they helped per month before the pandemic.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Since the beginning of the pandemic, Northeast Emergency Food Program (NEFP) has seen many more regular faces.

Every Thursday and Saturday between 12 p.m.-3 p.m., hundreds of people find their way to the Northeast Emergency Food Program’s (NEFP) drive-thru pick-up events. 

Flaggers wave people through and stop traffic as cars pull into one of four loading stations at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church at 4800 NE 72nd Ave. As trunks pop open, dozens of volunteers load clients’ cars with at least 100 pounds of food including meat, eggs, fresh produce and nonperishable staples.

“Our hearts hurt and then they're full, because we see the regular people come through every week,” said volunteer, Jan Bower.

Bower has been volunteering at the drive-thru program since it expanded from NEFP’s indoor food pantry in March 2020. She knows most of the clients by name and their stories.

“Two of them are teaching us Vietnamese and Russian so we can speak to them,” said Bower. “They feel like family.”

Zoe, who preferred we not use her last name, is a regular client at NEFP. She tells KGW that during her most difficult days in 2020, she lived on $300 a month and was housing insecure.

“My fridge goes empty every week,” said Zoe. “I had to come to terms with accepting what they were offering and it really changed me and made me grateful in a way that I wasn't before.”

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For most clients, not having to choose between food and other expenses is a blessing, since there are so many other difficult choices to be made. 

“Some people's decisions are literally—is it going to be gas? Is it going to be rent? Is it going to be my medication? Is it going to be childcare?” shared NEFP program manager A'Jay Scipio. She said the growing and sustained need for food is part of the ripple effect created by the pandemic.

“It's still wreaking havoc,” said Scipio. “People are still trying to figure out how to do life.”

NEFP is a part of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and a partner agency of the Oregon Food Bank. Their food donations also come from local grocery stores and donations from the public

Before the pandemic hit, clients used to be able to walk through NEFP’s shopping-style indoor pantry and choose the food they wanted. The nonprofit moved into the drive-thru format to meet COVID restrictions and the growing need. Pre-pandemic, NEFP served about 3,000 clients a month. In October, Scipio said they served 38,000, and in their busiest months, they’ve served as many as 75,000 clients.

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“Of course as the holidays are on us, people are going to be in need of more food, more food, more food,” said Scipio. 

Besides food for people, NEFP is in need of pet food and supplies, personal hygiene items and volunteers to help during their drive-thru events. All of it amounts to a gift that clients like Zoe hope others will accept if they need it.

“Don't be afraid to say, ‘I am where I am and I need help,’" said Zoe. "Appreciate the help that's out there.”