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Zarephath Kitchen & Pantry pivots to serve hungry clients during COVID-19 pandemic

COURTESY PHOTO: ZAREPHATH KITCHEN AND PANTRY - Zarephath is thriving thanks to volunteers like June Norris (back left), Cliff Webb, Bev Anderson, Ruth Tarlton, and Sharon Simms (front). At one local nonprofit kitchen, the sandwich makers have started to get creative.

Last week it was volunteer cook Cliff Webb who worked his magic in the Zarephath Kitchen in downtown Gresham, going the extra mile for the clients lined up 6-feet apart waiting for their sack lunches.

Not that there is anything wrong with the standard peanut butter and jelly or cold cut options, and the clients who visit Zarephath for a meal are thankful no matter what they are served. But for both the volunteers and hungry visitors, a little creativity never hurts while facing down social isolation and a global pandemic.

Webb has debuted his hugely popular hot sandwiches at Zarephath, including burritos, pulled pork and hot dogs — seemingly putting to bed the age-old debate of whether franks in a bun count among the sandwich family. On Tuesday, April 14, he showcased his newest creation, Sloppy Joes.

"They wrap them up in hot sandwich paper and pull them out of the warmer just as the sack lunch is being distributed," said Kathleen Thompson, Zarephath board member and treasurer. "We are continuing to feed people, but in these troubling times our methods have changed."

COURTESY PHOTO: ZAREPHATH KITCHEN AND PANTRY - Zarephath Kitchen & Pantry have pivoted service strategies to continue feeding the hungry during the COVID-19 pandemic.That creativity isn't isolated to the volunteer cooks. Throughout Zarephath Kitchen & Pantry there has been an innovative and dedicated transition to continuing a mission of feeding the hungry despite the strange times brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

From implementing cleaning and safety protocols, revamping the dining experience, and turning the pantry into a food distribution center, the nonprofit organization is feeding vulnerable East Multnomah County residents.

"Our volunteers turned on a dime and had things under control," Thompson said. "Everybody is on board — it's a family atmosphere with everyone working together as a team."

Take-out service

PMG FILE PHOTO - Volunteers at Zarephath have been working hard to put together sack lunches for clients who visit in need of a meal. When the novel coronavirus first reared up in Oregon, Zarephath knew its normal dining experience was untenable.

The nonprofit normally serves almost a hundred hungry diners at its kitchen, 59 N.W. Ava Ave., with dishes like soups and stews, pasta, salad and more. But with the pandemic, kitchen managers Connie Medak and Hector Sanchez devised a new plan — sack lunches. The meals are put together by a team of volunteers and distributed safely four afternoons per week at the back porch of the building.

"The kitchen has been running really smoothly," Thompson said. "Our volunteers have stepped up."

Clients visiting the kitchen not only get to enjoy innovative sandwiches by volunteers like Webb, but also take away a bag stuffed with enough food to almost get them through the day without another meal. The Zarephath lunches have the sandwich, boiled eggs for protein, a carton of milk or bottle of water, fruit or fruit cup, chips, vegetables, and napkins/utensils. Each bag also has something for clients' sweet tooth.

To help mitigate trash in the neighborhood, all of the sack lunches have stickers reminding clients to properly throw away their garbage after enjoying the meal.

There have been speed bumps. Like many other nonprofit organizations, Zarephath's volunteer pool was depleted as senior and vulnerable helpers were unable to continue serving during the pandemic. Rather than the normal crew of chefs, servers and dishwashers, the space is filled with sandwich makers, sack lunch fillers and distributors. New supplies also have been needed in the kitchen to fuel the to-go meals.

In addition, the volunteer pool has been bolstered by board members and those normally assigned to the pantry, all pitching in to keep the kitchen operational.

In total, the nonprofit organization is passing out between 70-100 sack lunches each day.

"If we run out of lunches we hurry up and make more," Thompson said. "No one goes away hungry."

Distribution center

COURTESY PHOTO: ZAREPHATH KITCHEN AND PANTRY - Gresham Homeless Services Specialist Kevin Dahlgren and Zarephath Kitchen Manager Connie Medak practice good social distancing. Zarephath Pantry Manager Pat Cutsforth put on her thinking cap when the pandemic shut things down across the state.

The normal means of operation — a shopping-style food pantry where clients could pick out the perfect meal for their family — wasn't able to be accomplished safely. So Cutsforth decided to transition back to a food box method of distribution.

For one day at Zarephath visitors lined up outside, again with social distancing in mind. Volunteers surveyed them to customize the boxes for each client, with questions including how many people in their family, food preference and whether or not they had cooking appliances to prepare food.

But that was a temporary solution as the pantry was unable to deal with high demand and limited volunteers. So Cutsforth again pivoted to a new system — distributing the stockpiled food to other organizations and churches.

"We are continuing to serve our mission of 'Feeding Hungry People,'" Cutsforth said.

In just a few weeks Zarephath sent hundreds of pounds of food to neighboring food pantries and churches. They also continued a strong relationship with the Gresham Homeless Services team, giving them boxes of non-perishable food and fresh fruit that they pass out on their routes throughout the city checking on the homeless population. Those routes now also include some homebound seniors.

The nonprofit pantry needs supplies to continue feeding hungry residents. The group is looking for non-perishable food donations, including healthy options, peanut butter, oats, vegetables and fruit, and protein items. The organization also is in need of nitrile gloves.

COURTESY PHOTO: ZAREPHATH KITCHEN AND PANTRY - Myra Mendez and Scott Capps pick up food at Zarephath Pantry destined for the East Gresham Elementary lunch event. For the Zarephath Kitchen, donations of bottled water, boxed milk or individual milk containers, and baby carrots would be appreciated.

Visit Zarephath anytime between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on any day the kitchen is open to make donations.

And while the initial switch had to be put on hiatus, Zarephath soon will reopen its pantry once per week to pass out food boxes. The pantry will be open on Thursdays, beginning April 30, in addition to maintaining its new role as a distribution center.

"If someone is hungry at our door, we will feed them," Thompson said.

Zarephath Kitchen & Pantry

59 N.W. Ava Ave.

Kitchen Hours: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, Friday

Learn more at

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