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Giving Tuesday: Global Pandemic Doesn't Stop The Burrito Brigade From Feeding The Hungry

Melorie Begay/KLCC News

Every weekend without fail, Burrito Brigade volunteers prep, cook, and distribute hundreds of vegan burritos across Eugene and Springfield. While some adjustments were made, COVID-19 hasn’t slowed or prevented operations. KLCC’s Melorie Begay stopped by a volunteer session to learn more.

Volunteers are spread out inside a large kitchen with two people at each table. This is the Burrito Brigade. They’ve met every Saturday and Sunday since 2014 to churn out about 700 vegan burritos each weekend to feed anyone in need of a hot meal. The organization expanded its program to Portland in 2016.

Executive Director Jennifer Denson and everyone in the kitchen is wearing a mask in accordance with COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“COVID definitely changed the way we did everything, the nice thing is that every other week we are here at FOOD for Lane County which is a nice big space,” Denson said.  

Credit Melorie Begay / KLCC News
Two volunteers chop red bell peppers for the burritos. Volunteers have to wear face masks and try to physical distance as much as possible.

In addition to masking up, volunteers wear gloves and try to distance themselves from others as much as possible.

Most of the people volunteering are part of a core group to prevent contact with new people each weekend.

“It’s important to us that we haven’t skipped a weekend, so when COVID hit, you know, we had to make a lot of choices as an organization and it was interesting to even think about trying to put [the Burrito Brigade] on hold, but hunger doesn’t take a hold,” Denson said.

The concept and execution of what the Burrito Brigade does is pretty straightforward, feed the hungry using simple vegan friendly ingredients and make it tasty. Volunteer and Board of Directors member Liz Hurkes said that’s why she got involved.

“Everything is growing out of this grassroots effort, and so I feel like that’s really endearing and it’s also really neat to [to have been] a part of it at the beginning,” Hurkes said. “The Burrito Brigade has been around for 5 years and we’re trying to grow and grow.”

Credit Melorie Begay / KLCC News
Liz Hurkes serves on the board of directors for the Burrito Brigade. She said she admires the amount of growth the organization has gone through over the past few years.

Hurkes scoops a mixture of beans and roasted veggies onto a tortilla, and rolls them up in aluminum foil. It’s the last stop before the burritos are placed in insulated bags and are sent out to people in need.

“Burrito Brigade is doing burritos but we also do food pantries and now we’ve started a food bank since the pandemic hit, so to be a part of that and help it grow more tangibly, I think it’s a great opportunity,” Hurkes said.  

A few of the volunteers are college and high school students like Naomi Saenger, a sophomore at South Eugene High School. At the start of the pandemic in April she said she wanted to do something meaningful with her time.

“I wanted to volunteer at a food organization because I’m really interested in everything food related, and I found the Burrito Brigade and have been with them ever since,” said Saenger.

Saenger said she was inspired by the program and her experience led her to start her own food pantry outside the Eugene Family YMCA.

Specifically, she pointed to the popularity of the Burrito Brigade’s Waste to Taste program that aims to reduce food waste by “rescuing” food and offering it to people in need. The program operates like a store where people can get food that was donated by local restaurants, farms and other grocery stores.

Credit Melorie Begay/KLCC News
Volunteer Naomi Saenger (left) recently led a project to install a food pantry outside the Eugene Family YMCA. The South Eugene High School sophomore said before she began volunteering she didn't know many big of an issue hunger was, now it's something she wants to help solve.

“There’d be a waiting list for people who needed to get free food, and it was such a need and a necessity,” Saenger said. “It was such a need and a necessity in our community that I wanted to make one and someone had to do it.”

Burrito Brigade also has more than 20 food pantries with locations in Eugene, Springfield, and Junction City.

“Burrito Brigade helps out so many types of families and people, it’s a super inclusive organization…all these people feel so welcomed by Burrito Brigade that they’re able to be like ‘I need some free food’ and Burrito Brigade will provide it for your no questions asked,” Saenger said.

Credit Melorie Begay/KLCC News
Executive Director Jennifer Denson said she's thankful for the community's support during the pandemic, and credits them for keeping the brigade operational throughout the past several months.

Other than adopting safety measures, and altering distribution methods, Jennifer Denson said the brigade hasn’t faced any significant challenges this year. She attributes their resilience to community support.

“We’re super thankful for our community,” Denson said. “I mean we’ve been going at this because of the community and the community has supported us from the beginning. Any time we put a call out for beans or rice, or any supply that we needed the community stepped up.”

While the organization has started new projects this year, Denson said they’ve also seen an uptick in people in need of a hot meal. The issue of food insecurity is vast, she adds, and it affects a variety of people, but the brigade is there to help when they can.

Due to the pandemic, the Burrito Brigade is not accepting new volunteers for making burritos, but they are accepting volunteers for other programs and donations from the community.  More info here.

Copyright, 2020 KLCC

Melorie Begay is a multimedia journalist for KLCC News. She was the Inaugural KLCC Public Radio Foundation Journalism Fellow. She has a bachelors in Multimedia Journalism from the University of New Mexico. She previously interned at KUNM public radio in Albuquerque, NM and served as a fellow for the online news publication New Mexico In Depth.
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