“We can make it happen”: Booth serves meals & love to Portland’s Indigenous community
Prior to March 2020, NAYA’s kitchen staff—led by longtime Kitchen Manager Laura Booth—would arrive most mornings by 8 a.m., and prepare breakfast. On any given morning, the smell of bacon or pancakes would fill the NAYA lobby, as smiling community elders, Many Nations Academy students, and NAYA staff would line up in the hallway outside the kitchen. After a quick clean up, lunch service would soon follow. Most Wednesdays, Booth and her team whipped up dinners for various community events held on-site—often feeding between 50 to 100 people. There were also meals for special events.
That routine all changed on March 13, 2020, when NAYA notified its staff that it would close its doors to the public immediately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To say things have changed since then would be an understatement. Whereas the NAYA kitchen served roughly 29,000 meals in all of 2019, now staff are delivering more than 1,700 meals weekly—a 300% increase.
When NAYA’s doors closed, staff recognized that—pandemic or no pandemic—there were hundreds of community members who relied upon NAYA for food. Moreover, with news of layoffs and soaring unemployment at the time, the team knew that even more families would likely become food insecure, increasing the need for additional help.
Booth recounts that initially, there were worries about resources, but everyone stepped up on fundraising. With additional resources, staff were reassigned to help with the immense task of preparing, cooking, packing, and delivering nearly 1,000 meals and snacks throughout the area twice a week. The first meals were delivered after only five days of the family center’s shutdown, a feat that NAYA staff are still incredibly proud of.
That the NAYA kitchen could react so immediately and effectively is a testament to Booth’s leadership. Since 2016, the kitchen has grown and thrived under her direction. She and her staff have cooked and served tens of thousands of meals to everyone from elders and babies to dignitaries and staff over the years.
On a sunny weekday in mid-July, the kitchen was quiet, giving Booth a rare opportunity to pause and reflect on the past year. Booth comments that some days, it’s hard to remember what the kitchen was like pre-COVID-19.
The differences are clear, but if anyone would know, it’d be Booth. She has been working with NAYA in one way or another since 1994, when she did catering for its events as a contractor or volunteer. She and Tawna Sanchez, NAYA director of family services, catered NAYA’s first two galas, toiling away in the tiny Portland State University longhouse kitchen. The years passed, and more volunteer work solidified her connection to NAYA, as did the events she continued to help organize: the annual Many Nations Academy fundraising luncheon, the powwow Indian taco booth, other winter and spring gatherings, and more. About five years ago, she agreed to run the kitchen as a contractor for three months.
“I really had intended to retire and play with my grandkids and received my first NAYA paycheck and my first social security check in the same batch of mail! At the end of three months, I was enjoying myself so much that I agreed to stay on,” she said.
Booth and her cooks work to incorporate Native cuisine into the delivery rotation. Early on, there were salmon dishes. A pesto made of wild nettles gathered by NAYA staff was distributed in care packages. Wild rice is occasionally provided. As the shutdown and pandemic stretched on for far longer than many initially expected, Laura’s priority became providing food that offered families comfort.
“There has to be love and value behind what we’re providing. How would a raw squash make you feel loved?” she jokes. Instead, Booth and her team aim to provide “grandma’s cooking,” such as sandwiches and mac and cheese.
It’s been a joy hearing from families that received the meals, Booth says. Their comments have made her and her staff aware of how their food has made people’s lives a little easier during extraordinarily difficult times. Booth said she knows of several folks who have only seen a handful of people during the pandemic, and NAYA’s delivery team has made a positive difference in their days, both nutritionally and socially.
She credits NAYA’s flexibility and unwavering commitment to its clients for this impact. She explains, “NAYA has less fear of stepping outside of the box to reach our goals. I have this belief that we can make it happen, and we have. The number of people who have stepped up to help, staff from other programs helping with packing and delivering, is amazing. It’s humbling to see just how much work everyone is willing to put in to ensure our community has been kept fed through all of this.”