On Oct. 12 last year, Jeff Gilbert was notified he had five days to come up with a way to provide three meals a day to hundreds of wildfire survivors.
“Five days notification!” Gilbert exclaimed.
Gilbert is a Regional Emergency Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Human Services Emergency Management Unit. He also serves as the Feeding and Shelter Task Force leader and coordinates the food supply and chain of delivery. He was tasked with taking over the feeding operation from the Red Cross, which comes in at the start of a disaster for a limited amount of time.
Gilbert and his FEMA partner Chris Aronen cold-called almost every single restaurant, food truck, wholesale food service – anyone with a commercial kitchen that serves or delivers food – in every Oregon county affected with wildfires. Many restaurants and other food suppliers weren’t operating due to the COVID pandemic.
He finally got five food vendors* that have by now served 1.4 million meals. Although the number of wildfire survivors needing food has decreased this year to less than 1,000 people, it still means that every day about 3,000 meals are going out to them. Also, now meals and food boxes are being given out at vaccination sites as a way to encourage more unvaccinated people to come forward.
“If you feed people, they’re more likely to come for the vaccine,” Gilbert said.
The Kitchen on Court Street in Salem, is one of the vendors that has stepped up to help with hot meals and food boxes. The Kitchen also provided 1,800 meals for the PGE linemen in Salem during last year’s ice storm.
“We’ve been lucky we’ve been able to do this work. Feeding people when they need help is a good thing. It makes you feel good,” said Bernard Malherbe, owner and chef of The Kitchen.
His team makes food from scratch that is approachable for everybody including vegetarians and is nutritionally balanced. For example, a sample meal for a vaccine clinic might include roasted chicken, vegetables, quinoa and lentils. Besides providing meals, he and his workers have also driven across the state to deliver them.
Jim Vu, who works for and is a friend of Malherbe and co-owns the Court Street building with him, is in charge of the food boxes.
Malherbe and Vu have supplied about 70 vaccination clinics with about 7,000 meals and food boxes. The boxes contain enough food for one-week – 21 meals per box with cereals, green beans, corn, beets, peaches, tuna, corned beef, peanut butter, soups, oatmeal, mac’ and cheese, marinara sauce, pasta, rice, raviolis, cookies and other foods. The boxes are assembled in donated Salem warehouses by high school workers, who are learning work skills.
“All of this would not be possible without the committed employees of The Kitchen. We have the dedicated staff including our Office Manager, Nancy Hendricks, and we have hired over 15 high school and college students to help build and deliver these food boxes. This feeding program has helped secure the jobs of our existing employees and given most of these young adults their first job. We are proud of all the hard work and care they put into their jobs, knowing they are helping out community through this pandemic,” Vu said.
Vu had been a pharmaceutical salesman and also worked in commercial lending and banking.
“If someone had told me two years ago, we’d be doing hot meals and food boxes, I would have laughed in their face. But it’s been great. I feel we are part of the solution, helping the community,” Vu said.
Gilbert praises the Kitchen duo. “The Kitchen has really stepped up. I don’t care how urgent or how many meals or food boxes we need and in how short of a time, Bernard and Jim will show up. In the ice storm we received an urgent request – all the 600 PGE linemen needed food. I called Bernard. He only asked what type of meals they wanted, and he was like, ‘Yea, we can do that.’ This is a mission for them. It’s a calling. You’ll hear them say this is their way to give back. This is how they show their love towards others who have lost so much. In our world that’s rare.”
*The other four vendors are: Rogue Food Unites, which serves Deschutes, Douglas, Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties; Cravings Fine Foods Catering, which serves Lane County; B’Nai B’irth Camp, which serves Lincoln County; and The Salvation Army, which serves Benton, Linn, Marion and Multnomah counties.