MISSION — On a frigid February morning, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation held its twice-monthly food distribution. With sheets of snow blanketing the ground from a recent snowstorm, members of the reservation worked hand-in-hand with distribution drivers from The Wave Foundation, a Portland nonprofit sustainability coalition that helps provide communities like the reservation with healthy and sustainable food options during the pandemic.
Motown and rock ‘n’ roll oldies emanated from a StreetHopper Bluetooth speaker with an 8-inch woofer. Wave distribution workers, community members and high schoolers from the reservation clad in jackets, gloves, hats and scarves danced through various jobs, trying to stay warm amid brisk winds.
Kathleen Elliott, the workforce development/BOLSTER Program coordinator for the Tribes, said she danced partly out of necessity.
“It was cold, I needed to stay warm,” she said.
But her expressive movements weren’t simply the outcome of chilly weather, but rather a joyful experience, one which brings the community together.
“The Wave has been a godsend to us,” she said.
According to a report from Oregon State University, in 2020 an estimated 1 million Oregonians, nearly 25%, experienced food insecurity — defined as an individual who “had a disruption in their ability to feed themselves or their family.” The percentage has greatly increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, up from just 10% in 2019.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts its annual food security surveys in December of each year, the data aren’t presented to the public until nine months after, once the numbers have been analyzed. Without the USDA’s data, Mark Edwards — an OSU professor who has studied food insecurity for more than 20 years and published the report — branched out to other avenues in order to portray the fallout from COVID-19 in a more timely way.
Edwards turned his attention to tracking the food insecurity rate of people applying for unemployment. He found that a large percentage of those applying stemmed from jobs predominantly held by minorities. Edwards says historically the number of food insecure Black, Hipanic/Latino, and Indigenous individuals tended to be twice that of white individuals. His study was no different. The report finds BIPOC households have been disproportionately affected, leading to a food insecurity rate that is two to three times higher than for white Oregonians.
“One of the bigger surprises for me has been in some ways the shift in our thinking that had to have happened,” Edwards said. “It’s not just emergency food. There are a lot of people who are suddenly in an emergency because of COVID-19, but before that there were a lot of people that were chronically without food.”
Founded in spring 2020 in response to the growing issue of food insecurity during the pandemic, the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program partners with local businesses, primarily farms, buying their food before distributing it back to the community through organizations, such as food banks and other charities.
The program has distributed more than 100 million boxes since the start of the pandemic, but with its widespread nature, the boxes sometimes contain items that either clash with a community’s cultural needs or dietary preferences. A glut of dairy items sent to a community with high rates of lactose intolerant individuals; packages of red meats and pork that may conflict with religious ideologies; a lack of nutritious produce options.
“Sometimes food goes into the pipeline that can’t be controlled on down,” Edwards said. “At times, there hasn’t been great coordination to figure out, ‘Well, what food needs to show up here in this or that community?’ It was just, ‘Hey, here’s what we’ve got,’ which has often been the way we deal with commodity, excess foods.”
The Wave is working to retool the program in order to better serve community needs. Instead of implementing a top-down system, The Wave works with communities, customizing boxes to better match necessity and preference with sustainably sourced items. In doing so, the coalition has partnered with BIPOC communities and businesses to create more resilient and equitable food chains.
From the ground up
In January 2020, The Wave’s co-founder, Justin Zeulner, and a small group of associates and close friends decided to stake their claim in the world of sustainability. Zeulner, who had worked in the sustainability industry for years with several businesses, including the Portland Trail Blazers, began networking and constructing his team. The Wave’s team featured individuals from a variety of backgrounds, including commercial fishermen, climate advocates and chefs.
Zeulner and his team worked to reel in stakeholding businesses and federal grants, all the while receiving donations from private philanthropies to get the coalition up and running. Zeulner says The Wave’s blueprint and plan was vast — tackle the issue of sustainability with a furthered focus on public health and social justice.
“It became evident, extremely fast, that remote communities, specifically tribal nation communities, are always underserved,” Zeulner said. “The pandemic shone the spotlight on big gaps that we have in this country, that being one of them.”
The Wave’s first big project centered around implementing tribally sourced and cooked salmon at the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium. They worked to get local salmon on the menu, while simultaneously giving community vendors a chance to network and grow, showing off their products.
Jeffrey Mora — a fellow co-founder of The Wave, former executive chef for the Los Angeles Lakers and CEO of Food Fleet — says they worked tirelessly to meet the needs of both the tribal communities, as well as those on the business side of the university. They believed that a launching pad, such as Autzen, could be a proving ground for their model to help support local businesses. They aimed to assist farmers, fishermen, restaurants and transportation. Anything involved with getting food to people, specifically to assist and lift up BIPOC communities.
“Local, to me, is more regional than local,” Mora said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be 10 miles, 20 miles, 30 miles right? There’s local, there’s hyper-local, there’s regional. Supporting the food system as a whole, regionally, is more the key.”
The project at Autzen was an opportunity to showcase different suppliers and producers and get them engaged with the surrounding community, Mora said. The exposure would help the local vendors craft relationships and build towards long-term goals such as community-wide economic prosperity. Zeulner says it could provide funds to invest in lacking infrastructure, or battle against unjust, or even racist, infrastructure.
“We want all those venues right? All these big public institutions and facilities to be buying local, buying from BIPOC, buying tribally harvested goods, sustainably harvested goods,” Zeulner says. “And really, uplifting everybody by just agreeing to purchase the food.”
Months later, the coalition was on the doorstep of their first breakthrough. The salmon was on Autzen’s menu just in time for Oregon football’s season opener against Ohio State. But that game was never played, and fans never entered Autzen stadium for the 2020 season.
The pandemic curtailed much of the hard work The Wave had put in. Even still, Zeulner says stakeholders wanted to see meaningful progress in the lane of food security and local sourcing. So, The Wave shifted its focus to the growing battle against food insecurity amid the pandemic and decided to try its hand at producing food boxes through the USDA’s burgeoning program.
“And about a week or two later, we started getting calls from people saying, we heard what you guys are doing, we love it,” he said. “‘We’re gonna give you a bunch of fish, would you like 40,000 pounds of fish out of Sitka, Alaska, to put in your food boxes?’ And we had to be honest and say, ‘We haven’t done a box yet.’”
The plan was raw, more of a bright new idea, but with suitable funding and support, The Wave jumped right in.
Over the past year, The Wave has taken on several partnerships in the food-sector. Some, longer term working relationships with communities like the Umatilla Indian Reservation, others, shorter-term programs like its December project with the Hood River County School District.
In the quest to provide healthy food options to families in the community for the two weeks of winter break, Patricia Cooper, the school district’s director of programs, networked with nine different agencies, including The Wave.
Cooper said The Wave approached the situation in a conscientious way, first researching the community they would be serving — one comprising approximately 47% Hispanic families.
“One of the things that we wanted to make sure of was that we had options that were culturally sensitive to our families,” she said.
The Wave did just that, spending time discussing community preferences with Cooper and others in the weeks leading up to the distribution. It provided the school system with roughly 150 boxes filled with tamales and various chicken dishes.
“Families had a choice and they felt really valued,” Cooper said. “‘Wow food that we know how to prepare.’ That was very powerful. They don’t just provide food, they provide quality food.”
Quantity over quality
After historic floods in February 2020 wrecked areas of Pendleton, Elliott says the reservation was prompted to help its neighbors.
Just as they were recovering from the floods, COVID-19 hit. The reservation’s Wildhorse Resort & Casino closed and 800-plus community employees were out of work. Elliott says the tribe allocated money toward food relief as the reservation began buying food in bulk from Sysco through the USDA’s program.
It became quickly apparent to Elliott, however, that the food being offered by the USDA wasn’t nutritional.
“It felt like they were just giving us the stuff they couldn’t sell,” she said.
While the dairy products were suitable, Elliott says the protein options were a red flag. She recalls several batches of “chicken” taco meat that she believed was fake.
“If that’s all you’re gonna send us, we don’t want it,” she said. “It didn’t look real to me. (It looked) awful, I wouldn’t even feed that to my dog, if I had a dog.”
Despite the discontent, nothing changed. Elliott says the USDA never made direct contact with the community. The reservation continued to take anything and everything they could get, often donating the unwanted proteins to the Salvation Army.
“I think that’s where the issue is particularly poignant when you think of communities of color, because it’s one thing to be given a box of food this month that has things in it that you kind of think, ‘Eh, I don’t really want to eat that, it’s not what I’m used to,’” Edwards said. “But if month after month that’s what you’re getting, that’s bad right? Maybe even harmful to your health?”
Zeulner and his associates worked to provide sustainable options to target communities. In July 2020, the reservation became one of The Wave’s first long-term clients.
Curated with care
The Wave and members of the reservation had a previous relationship. The Wave had bought fish from their Tribes’ fisheries in the past, which Elliott says created a favorable template for the two sides to work together the second time around.
The Wave’s partner, Food Fleet, headed by Mora, works alongside The Wave to craft healthy and sustainably-sourced food box components. Before the reservation had even started working with the USDA, The Wave provided the community with monthly food box distributions. The boxes included a vast selection of fresh produce, some of which the community members had never seen or tried, and ultimately, declined to eat, Elliott said.
But The Wave was bringing nutritional options. So, the reservation upscaled its collaboration with The Wave through fall and winter as it too changed its approach.
Elliott said The Wave not only began bringing more food — nearly 700 boxes a month with biweekly distributions — but came to the table with a community-oriented approach that differed greatly from other programs.
“The Wave, they’ve listened to us, they’ve asked us questions on what our people want, what they need,” she said.
For Zeulner, Mora and their Wave counterparts, it’s just the type of implementation they envisioned.
“That’s a coalition, right,” Zeulner said. “A coalition is one that welcomes the masses and says, ‘How can we help you? You know we’re in this together.’”
The Wave still gave the same fresh produce and regionally-sourced proteins, but began to educate the community, providing lists of items in each box and later recipes for community members to use.
In recent distributions, The Wave’s boxes contained ground beef, sablefish, pasta, heat-and-serve soup, yams, brussel sprouts and cauliflower. The boxes come equipped with a pamphlet that includes a group of recipes as well as a short section detailing the sourcing of the protein.
“They gave us a lot of winter squash and people didn’t know what to do with it,” Elliott said. “And so when they started giving out the recipes, people were like, ‘Oh I tried that one recipe, that was pretty good, are we going to get some more of that?’ We’re learning about a lot of different foods and how to prepare them and making them tasty.”
The Wave made its presence felt on the ground too. Elliott says The Wave drivers didn’t just come drop off food, they helped distribute it, chatting with community members along the way, just like they did on that chilly morning in February.
Zeulner calls it a “build back better” model, one that could continue to benefit all parties involved for years to come as the communities continually learn from one another.
“It’s really hard to accept assistance,” Elliott said. “It’s pretty humbling when people show up and say, ‘We’re here to help.’ It’s like, what do you want in return? What do you want from me? That’s not been the case with (The Wave) They’ve been very accommodating. They’ve been nonjudgemental and I appreciate that very much. They’re learning from us, just like we’re learning from them.”
Elliott recalls a story she heard from a fellow community member about an afternoon that Wave workers spent with tribal elders learning how to prepare salmon using tribal techniques. She says the elders taught The Wave members how to clean and filet salmon before showing them how to properly can the fish.
“The (Wave) chefs said they would never look at salmon the same way again,” Elliott said. “I really like that they were willing to learn and didn’t step in and say, ‘Well that’s not how you do it.’ They were willing to learn how we do it. They’re great people and they’re genuine, which is pretty important to us.”
Despite the possibility of an extension as The Wave awaits further grant funding, the reservation is set to work with The Wave until April 2021. Even if that were to be the last time the parties work hand-in-hand, Elliott feels confident that The Wave has left a lasting impression.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of people around here are becoming really conscious about what they feed their families, opposed to when I was growing up here,” she said. “Actually asking instead of just saying ‘I don’t want this and tossing it.’”
A model built to last
In partnership with The Wave, Food Fleet has applied to become a licensed distributor through the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Zeulner said if granted, the organization plans to bring its model to the USDA’s operation in hopes of expanding to the national scale.
According to The Wave’s 2020 annual report, the coalition served more than 143,000 meal equivalents and over 29,000 hot meals in the last year.
“When we do well economically and do well pushing proven programs to tackle food insecurity we see that the rates of food insecurity can come down,” Edwards said.“We can do better and I think there are people in the system that are working on this that are doing the best they can given what comes through the pipe of the food system.”
As food security continues to plague the nation, disproportionately skewed toward BIPOC communities, Zeulner said The Wave is seeking continued grant-sourced funding that could enable them to extend community support from May to December of 2021. In conjunction with the drive for further funding, The Wave plans to begin serving Tribal Nation members in the Portland-metro region, as well as communities and tribes in the Spokane, Colville and Puget Sound areas of Washington.
The Wave has a vision outside of the Pacific Northwest as well. Zeulner said they are exploring branching out south toward Los Angeles where they could impact and serve Latino community members in addition to African American and Tribal Nation members living in Central and South Los Angeles neighborhoods.
Zeulner said they are presenting their model to stakeholders within the Biden administration, Congress and USDA with the intent to land a national pilot which would “encompass 20 markets and focused primarily on Tribal Nation communities.”
“We don’t want to waste time,” Zeulner said. “We want to be laser focused as an aggregate and a community on the things that matter the most. And once we get those accomplished, we’ll move on to the next one.”