Since this story first published in July, Feed the Mass has moved to the Breathe building, at 2305 SE 50th Avenue. Valentine has started offering virtual cooking classes once again, in addition to his mutual aid work.
A year ago, Jacobsen Valentine was offering free cooking classes out of a Whole Foods kitchen, teaching basic kitchen skills to underserved communities in the city. Now, in the wake of COVID-19 and its devastation of the local economy, Valentine’s nonprofit, Feed the Mass, has transformed into a food rescue and kitchen that feeds Portlanders three times each week.
When the novel coronavirus and the resulting stay-at-home order hit Oregon, thousands of Portlanders found themselves out of work and dealing with food insecurity for the first time, while many restaurants were forced to close. Valentine found himself with no kitchen to teach in — in January, he had moved moved Feed the Mass into Faubion school in Northeast Portland — but a desire to keep feeding people. “I needed to figure out a way to help out the community,” he says.
Even as a portion of the hospitality industry returned to work, Valentine was still seeing farmers and restaurants throw away tons of leftover food. So, like many other chefs throughout the country, he decided to pivot: Instead of teaching people how to feed themselves, he would feed them, using food donations from restaurants, farms, grocery stores, and cafeterias. Emma Sharer, the operations manager of the Redd on Salmon event space, offered Valentine a kitchen, and on May 11, Valentine was back, feeding the masses again.
Valentine says that there really isn’t a name yet for what this latest incarnation of Feed the Mass is, which collects ingredients from cafeterias and restaurants and repurposes them into free meals for anyone who asks. Cooking out of a temporary kitchen at the Redd on Salmon event space, Valentine makes several hundred meals each day, three days a week.
The first few hundred meals of the day are served directly out of Redd on Salmon, while the rest are distributed through ambassadors to various communities, including homeless camps across the city. “What we do is more than soup kitchen,” Valentine says. “We make sure our food is healthy, make sure people have access to it, we have variations with vegetarian and meat options. It’s much more thought-out meals than just throwing it in a pot. There’s a lot of skill put into the menu planning that we do.”
Airbnb was an early supporter, offering 3,000 pounds of food within days of Feed the Mass’s reopening — enough to provide three weeks’ worth of meals. Soon after, owners of shuttering restaurants started calling him directly: Gina Helvie at the now-closed Trinket offered up food, as well as Andy Ricker of Pok Pok. Over the last two months, as Valentine’s name circulated within the restaurant community, local chefs started showing up to help out; Valentine says at least 20 chefs have reached out to him in the last six weeks. “I helped Gabriel Rucker teach a cooking class a few months ago, and when Le Pigeon got vandalized, he posted and said, ‘Hey, I’m not mad at the person, I just wish I could cook for him.’ That’s how I felt,” Valentine says. “Everybody’s stuck in their 9-to-5, losing their minds. So people are going, ‘How can I help my community?’ This is the way.”
On the days that Feed the Mass serves food, Valentine and his second-in-command, chef DeeDee Hopkins, a recent Los Angeles expat, arrive at the Redd on Salmon early in the morning, followed by a wave of volunteers, who might include chefs like Vitaly Paley (Paley’s Place) and Patrick McKee (Estes), sifting through the day’s produce and pantry options. “We all play Chopped here,” Hopkins says. “We get all these ingredients and figure out what to do with them.” Volunteers in masks huddle around an island of grills, griddles, and burners, chopping vegetables, boiling pasta, and breaking up hunks of feta with gloved hands.
Over the next few hours, the team builds a menu out of what they have. One Wednesday in mid-June, the team took chicken thighs, chickpeas, cavatappi pasta, and greens and turned them into 900 meals consisting of a Georgian pressed chicken dish called chicken chkmeruli, with mac and cheese, chickpea stew, and salad. The team cooked until just before noon, when music started blasting through the speakers — inspirational gospel-style pop and dance remixes — to let crowds know it was time to eat.
Over the next hour, Valentine and Hopkins distributed meals to people walking up to the kitchen’s large garage windows, which open directly onto the sidewalk. A man on a skateboard slowed when he saw Hopkins passing out soup; he stopped to grab a mac and cheese. Multiple families came through, grabbing sets of meals for dinner later that evening. A person driving home from work saw the chalkboard sign and picked up soup and a sparkling water.
Unlike some pantries and meal sites in the area, which require a proof of unemployment or a permanent address, Feed the Mass is a “zero barrier” food site, which means anyone is eligible for a free meal. “Right now, we’re not focusing on a demographic. Everybody needs to eat,” Valentine says. “We have enough. There’s always going to be enough.”
After about an hour of distribution, the team broke for lunch, then started packing up cardboard boxes and cooler bags with the remaining meals, which included packages of soup and foil-wrapped chicken. From there, Hopkins and Valentine split up the teams: One would stay to clean, the other would deliver meals to camps of unhoused Portlanders.
Valentine loaded 120 meals into his silver Kia Soul, then set off for his first stop of the day, a small community of unhoused residents situated on two fenced blocks of Water Street. The camp has numerous tents, Wi-Fi, bathrooms, and a mobile shower unit; what they don’t have, Valentine says, is refrigeration. The lack of refrigeration is an issue beyond communities like this: many food pantries simply can’t accommodate the amount of fresh food donations they’d like, lacking the fridge space — if they have a fridge at all.
While Feed the Mass’s current nonprofit model was born out of the coronavirus crisis, Valentine doesn’t see it — like the issue of food waste — disappearing once COVID-19 starts to dissipate. Valentine wants to keep the meal program going, expand it, and become a permanent food rescue, kitchen, and community cooking school. Organizations like Urban Gleaners, which takes food donations from large-scale producers, caterers, and grocery stores and transforms them into boxes distributed at designated pantries, already do some of this work, but for Valentine, the centerpiece of Feed the Mass is hot meals.
If Valentine does get back into the world of culinary education, he wants to use what he’s learning now. “One thing we’re doing right now is that we’re gaining a lot of information. What are farms doing? What can we do with certain ingredients? How do we make things last?” he says. “We want to turn what we’ve learned into an education system. We’re not just doing cooking classes, we’re now talking about gleaning, how do we preserve things, how do we pickle things.”
For today, however, Valentine has enough on his plate. That afternoon, he drove to Revolution Hall to distribute 400 meals to the protesters there. “Last week, I went to a protest downtown. People are there all day, all night — they gotta eat,” Valentine says. “My form of protest is helping people.”