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Local volunteers whip up healthy meals for Portland's 'houseless' -- along with a dollop of human connection

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Lise Monahan (second from right) helps serve the first houseless diners who wander to her table by the Eastbank Esplanade in Portland, including Dave and Annette Collins (directly across the table), who lean in to inspect the farm-fresh meal. Volunteer Mike Dineley (far left) finishes preparations. If it weren't for Gales Creek farmer Lise Monahan and a bitterly cold night last winter, teens Katy Schlesser, Sarah Ornelas, and Heather Monahan wouldn't have been beating eggs, grating cheese, and chopping parsley in the Forest Grove Senior and Community Center kitchen on a hot summer afternoon.

Monahan was driving her organic goat dairy wares home from the Portland Farmer's Market last January when she stopped at a traffic light and saw a few people sleeping outside. Huddled beneath sleeping bags under a doorway on the sidewalk, they had just cardboard between their bodies and the frozen ground.

Remembering someone had frozen to death in Portland just days earlier, Monahan stopped to ask if she could give the sleepers a ride to a shelter. But when she called to find which shelters were available, she learned they were all full.

So Monahan and her market crew — her daughter Franziska and a few friends — went home to Gales Creek and came back with a big pot of steaming fresh soup and a thermos of hot cocoa. Zucchini frittatas filled with organic ingredients sit on the stove just before they go into the oven.

The sleepers were grateful for the meal, especially because it was homemade, and Monahan was struck with an idea: why not make a regular practice of feeding fresh, artisan food to folks in need?

"This kind of food shouldn't be a luxury item. It should be on everybody's plate," said Monahan, who runs Fraga Farmstead Creamery.

A few months later, Farm to Folk was born. Monahan's new nonprofit combats hunger by providing farm-fresh ingredients and nutrition to "houseless" people in downtown Portland at a sit-down community dinner the last Wednesday of each month. (Monahan prefers the term "houseless" to "homeless" because people who don't have a house or apartment can still call a certain place home.)

"It's a little heartbreaking because you wish you could do more," said Franziska. "Giving someone a cup of soup is such a temporary fix, because you know the next night it's going to be just as cold."

The nonprofit also connects teens with people they'd likely never otherwise get to know and life stories dramatically different from their own.

'A thing of love'

Since March, Monahan and a crew of about six volunteers have gathered in the senior center kitchen the last Wednesday of every month to cook high-quality, nutritious food for Portland's houseless population.

"The whole process of cooking I feel like is always a thing of love," said Ellie Vilhauer, 17. "It was cool to be able to do that and use it to feed people in Portland."

Vilhauer is one of several girls from Forest Grove High School — including Monahan's daughter, Heather — who meet at the kitchen around 2 p.m. and spend a couple hours preparing a meal, with help from one of Monahan's creamery volunteers and from Mike Dineley, a volunteer from nearby Gales Meadow Farm.Sarah Ornelas, 14, and Heather Monahan, 17, grate cheese for the zucchini frittatas they are making at the Forest Grove Senior Center.

Many of the high school participants are new to cooking and Dineley has been happy to teach them. "This year I've been trying to give back," he said.

On July 26, using fresh goat cheese from Monahan's farm and organic eggs, vegetables and herbs from Gales Meadow, they prepared zucchini and herb frittatas, cucumber and pea salad, and zucchini bread.

It's Monahan's way of challenging stigmas that associate houseless people with dumpster-diving and stale or moldy or second-rate food, that fail to imagine them as capable of appreciating a well-cooked meal.

"There's a lot of free, crappy food out there," she said. "But the nutrient-dense, good stuff people don't have access to."

At about 4:30 p.m. they packed all the food, along with a table and chairs, into Monahan's minivan and drove to Portland to a spot under the Morrison Bridge at the Vera Katz Eastside Esplanade where there's a convenient parking lot to set up in and a number of homeless camps nearby.Billy Sheppard, a 49 year old grandfather and skateboarder, gets ready for his Farm to Folk meal along the Eastbank Esplanade in Portland.

They draped the table with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth and carefully placed two large vases of colorful wildflowers as centerpieces.

"You're not just feeding people's bodies, you're feeding people's minds," said Monahan.

They also served hot coffee made with Starbuck's Instant and juice donated from Portland Juice Company.

'Good experience for everybody'

Over the next four hours, from 5 to 9 p.m., about 30 people visited Monahan's table to taste her artisan meal and engage in conversation, building a bridge between the houseless community and her own. At Monahan's table, everyone is welcome.

"It's not just about providing that one meal to houseless folks — it's about connecting over good food," she said.

Many diners were passersby, their curiosity sparked by Monahan's elaborate setup. Others had come looking for free food from another do-gooder serving free hot dogs nearby and were happy for the extra meal.

One houseless man who asked not to be named said he was from Forest Grove and watched Monahan's food being set up, but didn't stay to eat.The Farm to Folk sign brings people to the table.

Another ate his frittata and salad alone, away from the table, and said that before he was on the streets he was a vegetarian and able to eat a healthier diet. Now he can't be as choosy, so was grateful for the vegetarian meal.

An older couple wandered up to the table and sat down. Dave and Annette Collins, 62 and 50, have been houseless for years, and married for nine. Both faced homelessness after their daughters died — one in a car crash, one from illness — and Dave lost his job at Tektronix. His blue eyes were bright as they ate, their hands clutched together on the tabletop.

"I think this is excellent. I think it's a good experience for everybody," he said. Sean, a local homeless man, inquires about some of the ingredients in his salad.

The couple live in a tent nearby and grew up on farms — Dave in Iowa and Annette on a ranch near Baker City. She feels the stigma of homelessness daily.

"They're labeling all homeless as drug addicts and alcoholics. I'm 50 and I quit drinking when I was 21," she said.

They both miss eating wholesome food regularly, and realize the impact of events like this. Usually farmers don't get to witness the food they grow being cooked and enjoyed. The process is healing to everyone involved, said Dave.

"Every time we go, there's someone who's never tried goat cheese," said Monahan, who delights in introducing folks to her creamy wares.

When it comes to long hours of grueling, dirty work for relatively low pay, "We as small farmers have it hard," said Monahan, "but we're still the lucky ones because we have all this food. We work like peasants and we eat like kings."

Anyone who wants to volunteer or learn to cook healthy meals is welcome to join Farm to Folk. For information, go to Farmtofolk.us.

Annette and Dave Collins embrace as they walk away from the Farm to Folk table.

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