What started as a group of friends tackling food insecurity by making 50 burritos out of a house in the Whiteaker neighborhood has grown into a nonprofit organization that churns out 800 burritos every weekend for those in need in the community.
“It’s a simple project,” says Jennifer Denson, director of Burrito Brigade, adding that when she first got involved in 2015, she was “instantly hooked.”
Founded in 2014, Burrito Brigade’s mission is to feed the hungry and unhoused in Oregon by hand-delivering vegan meals for free. The organization has since expanded to Portland and has started additional projects to better support their mission.
Burrito Brigade is involved in the Share Fair with the Neighborhood Anarchist Collective to provide food, clothes, and services to the unhoused and other vulnerable members of the community. They stock little free pantries throughout the region, with the motto “take what you need; give what you can,” and participate in Waste to Taste, which works with local businesses, grocery stores, and farms to rescue food that would otherwise go to waste.
Although the amount varies with the season, a good portion of the food for the burritos is rescued. In the summer, 60 percent is donated, and in the winter, 30 percent is from local farms. Denson said tortillas are their biggest cost and they have a local restaurant that has bought beans for them for more than a year.
“The community rocks,” she says. Along with burrito assemblers and food providers, Burrito Brigade has also been supported by artists who volunteered to paint the food pantries across town.
Unique to Burrito Brigade, all their burritos are vegan. This originally started because the founder was vegan, but Denson said maintaining that standard became ethically important and a practical way to support a variety of dietary restrictions. It is also safer for everyone if brigade volunteers don’t have to handle meat or dairy. For some seniors, Burrito Brigade is a helpful option because Meals on Wheels doesn’t have accommodations for dairy- or gluten-free needs.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, Burrito Brigade has also seen needs increase across the community, especially among seniors who are immunocompromised.
“There’s so much hunger,” Denson says, and people mention COVID-related job losses, underemployment, and the struggles of having kids at home “when they send ‘Thank you, it doesn’t completely cover my grocery budget, but it helps me.’”
The operation has changed as well with COVID-19 restrictions. Burrito Brigade follows CDC guidelines, and it has limited its crews to 10 members and altered its distribution methods. Denson says it’s hard to think back to Christmas 2019, when they had 30 volunteers in a kitchen, and not know when they will be able to have that many crew members in one space again.
“But people still support what we do and get involved otherwise,” she says. “There’s still community effort, but it just took a slight turn.”
The pandemic has also affected where they can work. The church kitchens they used for years are no longer open. Right when COVID-19 hit, Burrito Brigade was able to move into FOOD for Lane County on Saturdays, and they bounce around on Sundays to churches that have a kitchen disconnected from the congregation. In the future, Denson says, their main goal is having their own building or location, because not having their own space is the biggest challenge they face.
“It’s a super big goal,” she says, but it would be super helpful for all the supplies to exist in one place. Logistically, organizers currently have to store supplies at their homes and move them every week. Denson says organizers have described Burrito Brigade as “going with the flow.”
Despite the challenges, Denson says the most rewarding aspect is being part of the team. People have asked her if she ever sleeps, but she said she’d rather be out feeding people than watching TV. She knows she gets something out of it, too, by giving. It’s also important for her to see thousands of pounds of food being rescued to help people who need it.
“It’s super fulfilling,” she says. “With everything going on in the world, I don’t want to sit and watch the news or listen to publications. I’m just feeding people—I have no idea what’s going on in the world.”
Burrito Brigade | 541/556-5051
Photo by Jeremy Bronson