PORTLAND, Ore — A group of volunteers have made it their mission to help fill hungry bellies in Portland, one burrito at a time. But their usual assembly-line style of cooking just isn't safe during a pandemic, so they're adapting.
"It's really opened my eyes to the community aspects of food and eating," Ashleigh Brantingham said.
Brantingham is the lead organizer for the Portland chapter of the Burrito Brigade, a mutual-aid effort that started in Eugene, Oregon.
A few times a month, a couple dozen volunteers would get together to chop, cook, and roll burritos before taking to the streets to deliver them to those experiencing homelessness or food insecurity throughout the Portland community.
That was before the pandemic.
"It's definitely changed the way I see, especially cooking dried pinto beans. I suddenly realized this was really important to do and I never thought that I would feel that way about dried beans," Brantingham said.
To Brantingham, a burrito represents more than just food, it's a sign of the power of community.
"Burritos are great because everyone loves a burrito," she said.
KGW first talked with the Portland Burrito Brigade in May, 2019. Then, they were working out of Sunnyside Community Center in Southeast Portland.
Back then, volunteers with the group were able to turn out between 400 and 500 burritos a couple times a month, but the pandemic changed that.
"We're absolutely making fewer burritos now," Brantingham said. "Which is just kind of the constraint difference from having a huge industrial kitchen and 20 volunteers versus my home kitchen and two volunteers."
Yes, she had to move the operation into her home kitchen. It makes for a smaller operation, making about 60 burritos every few weeks for mini-brigades.
"I think of it as being together, apart," she said. "Where we're all still working on the same project – we just can't do it in the same room anymore."
The Burrito Brigade relies on food donations, which are dropped off right to Brantingham's doorstep. She and her partner prep and cook everything themselves. Then a few volunteers pick up the burritos and deliver them throughout the community.
She said while they're not able to make as many burritos as before the era of COVID-19, their operation has become more nimble.
"Before you had to have a set date, you have to bring a bunch of people together to get it done. You have to organize space and the church that we rent from," Brantingham said. "With this, we’re kind of able to move a little bit faster and decide at the last minute; this weekend is going to be really hot and people are going to need food and they’re going to need water. So, we’re doing it."
That flexibility is important in a pandemic because Brantingham knows their mission and the need will only continue to grow.
"There's going to be so much more food insecurity as people lose jobs and lose income -- that having projects like this is going to be more and more important as time goes on," she said.