The HILLTOP Awards (Heroes Inspiring Leadership, Learning, Teamwork, Opportunity and Pride) honor individual and organizational efforts to address poverty in Multnomah County.
Created in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Erika Polmar’s Plate and Pitchfork was well-equipped and ready to feed hundreds in Multnomah County during COVID-19, another generation-defining tragedy.
That year, Polmar organized her first fundraiser dinner with the goal of teaching Oregonians the social, economic and environmental value of eating locally, while raising money for the more than 1,300 children who were orphaned in the attack.
The food event was the beginning of a 20-year journey that prepared Polmar to again make a difference during the nation’s next generation-defining tragedy: the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the late 1990s, the American diet consisted overwhelmingly of what Polmar refers to as “convenience foods” that were not local and often overly processed. Healthy food wasn’t getting to tables, she says, and children weren’t being educated about the value of nutritious food.
“We were on the edge of both a hunger problem and a health problem because people weren’t prioritizing their food,” Polmar recalls.
Polmar founded Plate and Pitchfork shortly after that first fundraiser dinner to address these needs, holding more dinners and increasing the scope of her nutrition-based activism.
“There was an opportunity to teach people how to eat well and also turn that experience into an entertaining one rather than a lecture,” she says.
In just a few years, Polmar was hosting eight to 14 dinners every summer at farms across Oregon. Contributions to feed hungry families in the community also surged. Soon, Polmar was raising over $25,000 each year.
“The more I got involved in meeting farmers and listening to their stories, and meeting chefs and meeting diners, and understanding what their different perspectives were, the projects just grew and grew,” she says.
As Polmar dedicated more time to food justice, she began to learn that the issue didn’t just affect health outcomes, but environmental and economic outcomes as well.
Polmar explains that eating locally and changing habits can be an easy and fun way to reduce your carbon footprint. She added buying guides to her website so community members could more easily transform their diets.
“Food and the environment, they’re inextricably tied together. And when you talk about environmental issues people get their heads in a twist and they don’t know how to approach it,” she says. “But when you talk about food it’s a much more approachable way to solve the problem.”
But the outlook for the local food justice system may not be so rosy, she says. Polmar says farmers are aging out of the work in Oregon. And as the practice of considering where food is grown and who it's grown by remains outside the mainstream, fewer people will consider farming as a sustainable career path.
“People have to respect food and farmers, or we’re just going to end up with a McDonald’s on every corner. We’re not going to have a vibrant restaurant economy, we’re not going to have farmers growing good products, and our health is going to suffer, and so is our economy,” Polmar says.
She implores the public to support local farmers and eat seasonally, to save both the environment and the farming economy.
“When you go to the grocery store, really think about what you’re putting in your cart and how you’re going to use it ,and make sure you’re using all of it,” she says.
Identifying these issues nudged Polmar toward agricultural policy work and agritourism to help farmers establish other streams of revenue.
She even advocated for the creation of Oregon Senate Bill 960, which allows farmers to host a limited number of commercial events on their land. The bill passed in 2011 and is still being implemented across the state today.
By the time the pandemic hit, Polmar was perfectly positioned to help. She called on her network of chefs and restaurant owners, summoned her experience addressing food insecurity and navigating local government, and led a large-scale emergency food assistance effort.
“A lot of people were suddenly out of work, and many of the people out of work were already teetering on the edge of hunger,” Polmar says. “It was very clear to me that there were people in the community who rely on things like the food bank and other food suppliers who were not getting access to food.… I was looking for a way to support that community.”
Polmar convened local County officials and the World Central Kitchen early in the pandemic to help get food to those most in need.
Once established, the program was able to provide 200 meals, four times per week, for residents in the Cully neighborhood. Funding from the World Central Kitchen’s “#ChefsForAmerica” program also allowed Polmar to keep local chefs employed to cook healthy meals while restaurants were closed.
The chefs were all ready, willing and able to work, Polmar says. The most difficult part of the project was finding the funding. Several wineries that Polmar has partnered with in the past held sales to kick off fundraising, including Domaine Drouhin and Brooks Winery, which were the leading funders for the program.
“The pandemic shut down our businesses, shut down our communities in ways we’d never experienced. It sort of ripped the seams out of the Portland community that we knew and loved,” Polmar says.
However, Polmar also recognized the pandemic further exposed gaps and problems that had already existed in the food system. Since the pandemic, Polmar has actively updated her fundraising messaging to specifically address community members who are most affected by food insecurity, such as children of color and new immigrant groups.
“Our current food system is actually working — it was designed not to nourish healthy bodies, but instead to create profit for corporations. That needs to change,” she says. “The way we compel people to be better advocates, better allies and better supporters is to tell better stories, so my job now is to tell better stories and to not gloss over anything.”
Through her work during the pandemic, Polmar hopes to not only raise awareness for food insecurity but also encourage others to get involved.
“I would love to see more people stop worrying about how to help the ‘right’ way and just help,” she says. “Having the weaknesses in our food system exposed and allowing people to see where help is needed in the future engaged more people in food system work and hopefully will generate support for these communities on an ongoing basis, not just during a crisis.”