After Rob Kirby, 51, prepares a record-breaking 180 meals at Stone Soup Corvallis, a soup kitchen, he says he feels accomplishment, but also an acute sense of despair.
“Why are the numbers so high?” he said. “Does the larger community of Corvallis know how pressing this need is and that it’s just growing?”
Stone Soup, the volunteer-run nonprofit where Kirby is a lead cook, has experienced a nearly 40% increase in demand this year compared to this time last year. The soup kitchen, which operates three locations out of church kitchens and one drive thru, served a record 42,000 meals in 2021.
By the end of July 2022, the organization had served over 8,000 meals more than it had by that time last year.
Sara Ingle, president of Stone Soup’s board of directors, attributed increasing demand for meals to income inequality and high housing costs in Corvallis, both of which she said were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over a quarter of Corvallis residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 estimates. Data from the city show Corvallis is also Oregon’s most severely rent-burdened community, with about 37% of residents spending over half their income on rent.
Ingle, 75, joined Stone Soup six years ago and became its board president in 2019.
“It hasn’t been at all what I expected, or anybody expected,” she said. “I’ve changed a lot. Stone Soup has changed a lot. The world is different.”
Stone Soup, which is turning 40 this year, provides free meals to anyone at its four meal sites. Each meal includes an entree, soup, a serving of vegetables and fruit, and a dessert, along with a vegetarian option. Ingredients for meals are provided by the Linn-Benton County Food Share, as well as donations and purchases.
Over 300 volunteers were sent home in February 2020 as kitchens closed due to COVID-19. Stone Soup offered catered to-go meals until reopening after Thanksgiving that year.
Stone Soup resumed serving their own diners and also began preparing meals for the county to distribute to homeless encampments where inhabitants were still quarantining. The organization continued serving a higher number of meals as the pandemic progressed and opened a temporary drive-thru site on Northwest Third Street. The drive-thru will close Aug. 27 after running out of funding.
Meal demand has surged while pandemic relief efforts have dissolved. Ingle said she is concerned that the Third Street location closure will further strain the organization, while the city clears homeless encampments without providing “facilities and service they need to live with dignity.”
“There is no plan or intention on the part of the city, that I am aware of, to improve life for those who are unsheltered,” Ingle said.
Benton County took steps to address homelessness in 2021, including converting a former motel into a shelter and providing emergency housing vouchers. A Corvallis spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ingle hopes to open a standalone location for Stone Soup, something the organization attempted in 2018 but failed to accomplish due to community opposition. She attributed the pushback to neighbors not wanting homeless services near their own homes.
Ingle said community opposition and increasing meal demand will not deter Stone Soup from feeding people.
“We have flexed and bent and done everything we could during the pandemic and we will continue to do that,” she said.
Kirby agreed, but said he wasn’t sure how the organization would meet increasing demand.
Stone Soup is so popular because of its “low-barrier” services, where no one gets turned away, regardless of their behavior or circumstances, Kirby said. Diners include college students, elderly residents and recipients of federal food benefits. Most, however, are people experiencing homelessness.
Volunteer Marjorie McClellan, 65, said even with federal and local aid, homelessness and food insecurity in Corvallis have worsened. McClellan said she used to prepare 40 to 60 meals per shift with leftovers. She now serves 120 meals per shift and consistently runs out of food.
Kirby said Stone Soup will find a way to continue meeting the rising demand, but more is required from the city, county and neighbors to address underlying issues.
“Together as a community, are we willing to do the hard work of addressing the needs that are leading people to be hungry?” Kirby said. “These diners aren’t some outside source, they aren’t people unlike any of the rest of us. They’re just people who have a circumstance that has put them in hungry situations.”
— Terah Bennett, St. Mary’s Academy
— Suzan Nuri, Beaverton Early College High School
This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to oregonlive.com/hsji.