When staff at the Native American Youth and Family Center met on March 13, executive director Paul Lumley said it was time to get ready to work from home — and to be ready to do so for a long time.

“We said, ‘When you leave today, take everything with you. Don’t leave a plant. Take your passwords, cords, chargers, photographs,” Lumley said. “You may not see these things for months.”

Lumley said it was strange seeing people leave their offices with fully packed boxes, the way people typically do when they leave a job.

Staff at NAYA, which was founded in 1974 and incorporated as a nonprofit in 1994, had been monitoring news about the novel coronavirus since the first cases were reported in China. The winter was punctuated with conversations about how to pivot the organization’s services — which include elder assistance, youth camps, and the administration of an alternative high school — in the event of a U.S. outbreak.

One of the biggest challenges would be providing food services. NAYA was serving several hundred meals a day, mostly through its senior center and alternative high school, Many Nations Academy. With those facilities shuttering, the organization had to find a way to get food to people in need.

“We have far more houseless people in this city than I think we’ve ever had.” — Tawna Sanchez, NAYA’s family services director

Native American households are four times as likely to report food insecurity as their white counterparts — and are also more likely to live in poverty, in Oregon and elsewhere. For nonprofits like NAYA, the novel coronavirus outbreak has only made it more difficult to serve people living in the Portland area. NAYA can’t host its usual social gatherings — either holiday events or everyday meals — so staff are trying to figure out ways to bring people together virtually.

Before COVID-19 hit, some seniors came in every day, where others just dropped in a couple times a week, according to Tawna Sanchez, NAYA’s family services director. And as one of Multnomah County Aging and Disabilities’ senior congregate meal sites, NAYA was contractually obligated to continue providing food to seniors — even after doing so in a congregate setting was no longer an option. With the pandemic raging, the organization had to figure out how to get those meals to the people who need them, some of whom don’t have permanent homes.

Staff started calling seniors and the families of students to coordinate meal delivery in mid-March.

“We moved very quickly to increase our capacity to store food, to get it out the door,” said Sanchez, who’s also a Democratic state legislator representing northeast Portland. “We have far more houseless people in this city than I think we’ve ever had.”

Justine Bautista packages boxes of food for community members at the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland on November 20, 2020. Since the pandemic began, NAYA delivered 1,750 meals a week to those in need of aid. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy)

At first, Sanchez said, she delivered meals herself. But staff, including people who had worked at the school and had to pivot their jobs once in-person classes could no longer be held, quickly shifted to assist with food preparation and with packing meals for clients, including extra meals on Fridays.

NAYA reports more requests for food assistance since the beginning of the pandemic — they will serve anyone who asks, Sanchez said — and is now delivering nearly 2,000 meals a week. Food insecurity has increased during the pandemic, with the national advocacy group Feeding America reporting that the number of food-insecure Americans has swelled from 37 million to 54 million this year.

Native Americans were already disproportionately likely to experience food insecurity. According to the Partnership With Native Americans, a nonprofit that works with tribes in nine Western states, 26% of Native families are food-insecure, and Native American households are four times as likely as other households to report not having enough to eat.

“Because of the shutdowns, not having enough access to those resources has been a tremendous challenge for our tribal communities and our tribal families,” said Rafael Tapia Jr., the association’s vice president of programs.

Tapia said the problem affects Native Americans living in rural areas — many of whom live in food deserts — as well as people living in cities, who are sometimes disconnected from the support offered by tribal government.

“There’s been an increase in urban settings for Native people needing support,” Tapia said. That includes not just food assistance, but help with things like unemployment applications. Many states, including Oregon, have struggled to process unemployment applications in a timely manner, and navigating the unemployment system can be daunting, Tapia said.

Travis Hilmoe loads boxes of food for community members at the Native American Youth and Family Center. Native Americans face some of the highest levels of food insecurity in the country. With closures of its congregate spaces, the organization has had to find new ways to get meals to clients. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy)

Sanchez said lack of storage and equipment — especially for food that needs to be frozen or refrigerated — is one of NAYA’s most pressing needs. Early in the pandemic, its walk-in freezer broke and all the food in it had to be disposed of; a mid-November power outage caused a lot of food to spoil as well.

And even the increase in giving that comes with the holidays poses its own challenges.

“Today we had an amazing donation of turkeys and hams come in. I have to move these out the door as quickly as possible because I don’t have enough storage for them,” said Sanchez in an interview the Monday before Thanksgiving. “While I think it’s great and wonderful that people donate large amounts of food, we just don’t have the storage space.”

In addition to a constant need for storage space, Sanchez said other kitchen equipment had to be upgraded, and staff have had to replace the wheels on carts used to move food around the kitchens.

“Food insecurity goes back to colonization. Our foodways were destroyed. Our foods were replaced by commodities.” — Rafael Tapia Jr., vice president of programs at the Partnership With Native Americans

But the organization has food delivery down to a routine: NAYA’s three kitchen staffers pack up food twice weekly — Tuesday and Friday.

NAYA has also worked this year to create longer-term solutions to food insecurity.

“We converted one of the baseball fields (at the high school) into a food garden,” producing a lot of tomatoes, corn, and squash over the summer, Lumley said.

Traditionally, NAYA has held a large holiday gathering that drew hundreds of people. That won’t be possible this year, so staff are planning a virtual event in December — one where the ingredients for a dish are delivered to families, and they receive cooking instructions via Zoom.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, NAYA has worked to get electronic devices into the hands of clients who need them to get online and has aided in walking clients through using video chat tools. The organization used to offer in-person tai chi classes for seniors; now the classes are online, Sanchez said.

“Food is an engagement point in the Native community. We have an event, we’re going to have food. We have a meeting, we have food,” Sanchez said. “It’s a traditional norm, for one, but it’s also that we’re very aware of food insecurity as an issue in the Native community.”

“Food insecurity goes back to colonization. Our foodways were destroyed. Our foods were replaced by commodities,” Tapia said. “You combine that history, which is very present today, our communities are trying to change the course of things that are going on for hundreds of years. And you lay the pandemic on top of that — it’s traumatic.”

Tapia’s organization has pivoted to delivering food to families in need and to addressing longer-term solutions to food insecurity.

“We’ve got to look at food as medicine and food as a life source,” Tapia said.

Lead photo: Travis Hilmoe packages boxes of food for community members at the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland on November 20, 2020. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy)

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, using our Republishing Guidelines.

ContributorChristen McCurdy (@CMcCurdyPDX) is a journalist in Portland, Ore. She has written for Street Roots, Pacific Standard, Bitch, Willamette Week, and other publications, and served as the news editor...