Any given Sunday (Potluck In The Park)…

Potluck in the Park approaches two decades of service, overcoming challenges and serving more than ever before

By Morgan VanFleet, Nick Baty and Kevin Nickoloff, Contributing writers

The air around O’Bryant Square is buzzing with energy of motion. Part of the movement comes from the cold, biting wind pushing through the trees, a rare dry autumn Sunday. But the majority of the energy comes from the cacophony of 600 plus people gathered in anticipation for a hot meal, courtesy of Potluck in the Park.

Logistics Supervisor Julius Brown scans the crowd, anticipating the needs of other volunteers and keeping guests happy. Brown is a congenial man with a knack for well-timed humor and problem solving. Fellow volunteer Karen Hudnall, a cheerful, loquacious woman with a disarming manner, describes Brown as the Potluck team “quarterback”, the go-to guy for volunteers or guests who need direction. Spotting a young woman with a video camera, Brown, tall and authoritative, glides over and requests that she respect the guests at Potluck.

The community dynamic displayed by Brown, the other 50 or so volunteers, and the guests can only be described as camaraderie. While many patrons separate into their respective groups and families, the cohesion of the crowd distinguishes the mission of Potluck. Started in 1991 by Sharon Darcy, what was once an actual potluck of home cooked food in the Park Blocks has grown over the past 19 years to a weekly party meant to feed anyone in need of a meal. Potluck also provides an anniversary barbeque in August, a holiday celebration in December, and nearly weekly resource provisions. As every Potluck volunteer will tell you, every Sunday, rain or shine, a person can come to O’Bryant Square and receive a free, quality meal served by fellow guests and volunteers.

Although patrons have come to depend on Potluck as a weekly fixture, the event’s existence has faced an array of challenges. Next year, Potluck will celebrate 20 years of feeding the Portland-Metro community. Attendance has increased from, at most, 350 guests per week in 2006 to more than 500 per week in 2010. While the organization has risen to the occasion to meet several struggles, organizers fear that growing attendance may one day outpace Potluck’s capacity.

In a momentary lull from handing out tickets, volunteer Denise Williams shows off an afghan she’s knitting for Potluck’s annual benefit auction. The blanket, rich in auburn hues and crafted with a neat, experienced hand, will be sold to help support the grass-roots efforts of Potluck. She first came to Potluck as a guest 11 years ago and now labors quietly to see everyone fed. Williams met Brown through Potluck eight years ago, and now the two are engaged and have a home together. Every Sunday they commute over 80 blocks from Southeast 77th Avenue to contribute to the Potluck family.

Williams’ work represents what Hudnall describes as a common characteristic of Potluck’s “multitalented volunteers.” Hudnall then points out two men who normally work security for the event. They have shown up on their day off to volunteer their time and heavy lifting abilities. Volunteers come from as far away as Corvallis, such as those sent three to four times yearly by the Corvallis Unitarian Universalist Church. According to Volunteer Coordinator Mary Hunger, a veritable encyclopedia of Potluck history, the increase in patronage means a constant need for more volunteers. And while those numbers rise during the holiday season, she notes that there is a subsequent drop in January and February.

Volunteer David Utzinger attributes the rise in customers to several factors. He says that when The Blanchet House stopped serving a Sunday meal, Potluck immediately experienced an increase in attendance. Undeniably, the economic recession has also created a greater need for meals like those provided by Potluck.

Guest Wendy Shumway, in a warm blue fleece matching the color of the crisp sky, has been attending Potluck since her teenage daughter, sitting nearby, was in diapers. Lately, she’s noticed more families attending the event, but isn’t surprised by the trend. This is a sentiment echoed by Brown, who points to a woman with several children in tow lining up for the meal.

Stephanie Italy has found a Sunday meal with Potluck for 13 years. At only 18 years old, Italy has lived the majority of her life on the streets. While she now has housing in Old Town, she was homeless for 16 years.

“[Potluck] has a fun atmosphere. The volunteers are amazing — sweet and supportive. And a street family can all come together in one place for a meal,” Italy says. “It’s probably triple in size now. There’s a lot more people.” A lot of patrons, she says, have been homeless for a long time.

Hudnall describes the many services that Potluck offers in addition to the weekly meal. About once a month, Potluck has a “resource table” offering basic hygiene supplies, some clothing, blankets, and other necessities of life. Potluck also strives to hand out food for dogs and cats as often as possible, helping to feed furry family members in need. Hudnall also provides an account of the yearly holiday party, held December 25th at the YWCA. “Celebration of a holiday is a big deal,” she stresses. Potluck offers Christmas trees, gifts, a holiday meal, and even donated cell phones. She feels this contributes to a better sense of community and support for attendees.

Potluck hasn’t always been so warmly received. Four and a half years after its inception, Potluck relocated from the South Park Blocks to O’Bryant Square, after the residents around the Park Blocks complained about the growing size of the event. In order to facilitate relocation to a city park, volunteers organized to form the official 501(c)3 non-profit organization Potluck in the Park and acquired insurance for their operation. When using the kitchens at the YWCA to cook and wash dishes was no longer an option, Potluck sought a new home base for cooking and cleaning. Potluck Secretary Mary Hunger says Transition Projects’ Clark Center volunteered their kitchens and hot water. With increasing attendance causing further growing pains, Potluck had to graduate to its own kitchen. The current kitchen, located on Southeast Third Street, allows volunteers to prepare and cook food as well as wash dishes. In preparation for one Sunday meal, volunteers in the kitchen produced 15 industrial-sized pans of hot food, which included more than 50 pounds of chicken.

For the first 13 years, Potluck’s food was home prepared. Today, nearly all the food is now prepared both in Potluck’s kitchen and in the kitchen of Christ Church in Lake Oswego. Volunteers collect food two or three times a week in Potluck’s signature grey Chevy van, and start preparing for Sunday’s meal as early as Tuesday.

Sunday mornings at Potluck are a flurry of activity. Volunteers responsible for driving food and equipment to O’Bryant square must commit their entire Sunday to the task. First to arrive are the tables, pallets, ropes and other infrastructure items. Within 30 minutes, the park has transformed into a fully functioning cafeteria, minus the food. Volunteers have often had years of practice, so setup flies by quickly and smoothly. After everything from hand washing stations to tray returns has been seen to, volunteers begin unloading bag upon bag of donated bread and other goods, available to guests prior to the meal. Spotted among the donated items are fresh bread from Dave’s Killer Bread and flowers from Trader Joe’s. As anticipation builds, volunteers scan the street for the arrival of the hot food. Soon, the savory aromas of casseroles, stir fries, chicken, and hot dogs will mix with the sticky, glazed sweetness emanating from the tables of pastries, donuts, and fruit.

William Starr, who has been a guest at Potluck since 2007, considers it one of the best meals around. That sentiment is echoed by guest Sean Carter, who today has traveled from the Springwater Corridor to enjoy a meal at Potluck. The food guests enjoy is donated by a diverse array of businesses. Western Culinary Institute, Albertsons on Shattuck, Dave’s Killer Bread, Trader Joe’s, Franz Bakeries, Oregon Food Bank, and Birch Community Services are just some of the donors that help realize Potluck’s vision.

After meal service winds down, the long process of cleaning up and breaking down begins. Utzinger combs O’Bryant Square and a surrounding two block radius, picking up any garbage left behind. He and many others will work late in to the night, washing dishes, delivering leftovers to Clark Center, and dismantling Potluck’s city park cafeteria.

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