We at Rootstock Radio are all about digging up stories of people who are passionately working to create a nourishing and just food system, and in Portland, Oregon, we found one of the most creative ventures we’ve ever seen. Sisters of the Road is a collectively run organization that’s been working to alleviate hunger, homelessness and poverty in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood since 1979. Some of the group’s solutions involve bringing back very old ideas and giving them a modern makeover.
From their website, “Sisters’ customers, volunteers and staff have been creating community for more than three decades. Creating a safe, hospitable space and offering delicious, nourishing meals are our priorities in the Cafe. At Sisters Of The Road, we believe that everyone has a right to safe and healthy food, and to dine with dignity.”
It was so refreshing to hear about it all from Kris Soebroto, who is the Sisters of the Road Café Co-Manager and the organization’s Development Co-Manager. Enjoy the episode!
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Kris Soebroto
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello again, and welcome. We at Rootstock Radio are all about digging up stories of people who are passionately working to create a nourishing and just food system. And in Portland, Oregon, we found one of the most creative ventures I’ve ever seen. Sisters of the Road is a collectively run organization that’s been working to alleviate hunger, homelessness, and poverty in Portland’s Old Town since 1979, and they’re doing a great job of it. One of the reasons is Kris Soebroto. Please welcome Kris to Rootstock Radio.
It is such an honor today to be talking to Kris Soebroto, who is working with the Sisters of the Road Café. In fact, I’ve now said that she is the Sisters of the Road warrior.
KRIS SOEBROTO: Thank you!
TM: And why do I think Kris is a warrior? Because she’s doing something that is just so filled with heart, and that is feeding the homeless. So Kris, tell me, what got you into this job and motivated you to want to work with the Sisters of the Road Café?
KS: You know, I had been in the trades for all my life. I was a woodworker, cabinetmaker, not in the food world at all. And as the food culture sort of started blossoming in Portland, it really captured my imagination and I got super passionate. And I realized that I was seeing the same people showing up and the same people participating, and realized it wasn’t reaching everybody in our city. And so equitable food access really sort of became my point of focus.
And when the recession hit, I got laid off, and I had the opportunity to just volunteer everywhere. And Portland has amazing organizations doing work around food access. And Sisters was kind of an afterthought, and it completely took me by surprise; it totally stole my heart. And I tell this story because it was pretty life-changing for me. I walked in as a volunteer that first time, and I couldn’t tell who was staff or who was a customer or who was a volunteer. And that sort of sense of us all being in it together really changed how I saw the world, and continues to change how I see the world.
TM: Well, the Sisters is like a 30-year-old—
KS: Thirty-five years in the same location, yes.
TM: Thirty-five years. And the location is in downtown Portland—
KS: In Old Town, yup. And it’s developing all around us, and we’re just holding strong, and our community needs us there.
TM: And you know, a lot of people in Portland might not know just what a large homeless population we have. Am I correct in saying that we have quite a few homeless here?
KS: We do. And I don’t know the numbers, but we do have a lot of folks who are sleeping outside. And I think a huge part of that is that we just have a huge lack of affordable housing, and we don’t have policies in place that ask developers to create affordable housing. And you look around the city, there’s a lot of development happening, and again, it’s only reaching certain folks.
TM: So you’re saying a lot of the homeless here are people who really are from Portland and who just cannot find affordable housing?
KS: Yeah, you know, and I think living in poverty or experiencing homelessness, there’s a lot of reasons. Life is really complicated. And also what I hear is that it can be very simple things that lead someone to living outside. If we don’t have a safety net, if we don’t have a family or a community, it takes us getting sick, losing a job, losing our housing, you know? And it’s as simple as that for a lot of folks. And then once you are outside, there’s a lot of factors that make it really hard to get back inside.
TM: Gee, that is something for us to wrap our head around, especially those of us who really care about the Good Food movement. A lot of the shows that our listeners have heard from Rootstock Radio have been about the Good Food movement, and so it’s very exciting and such an honor for me to bring in another dimension. You know, what is good food? Well, for someone who’s hungry, the definition of good food probably expands a lot. And a lot of times, I think some of us think, gee, when you’re feeding the homeless, they’re probably just eating beans. But I read in your material that you actually serve a lot of fresh delicious food at the Sisters of the Road Café. How do you manage to do that?
KS: We managed it because we understand it to be a human right. And I’m glad you asked this question, because we did get pushback from some of our donors who think that maybe it is enough just to provide food, just to sort of feed a hungry belly. And we actually push back against that and say that isn’t enough. Nourishment is enough, and that means both healthy food and also time to eat it, time to sit with friends, and time to build relationships. That’s sort of the experience of nourishment and good food. And so we have just let… You know, the amazing thing is, there is a lot of great food out there. Farmers are the first ones to know that their food needs to reach more people, and have been amazing supporters. And we as an organization have just prioritized that because we believe it to be a human right.
TM: I think that that is so beautiful and good, because I do think that good food should be for everyone. And also, I love that you’re connecting this food and the goodness of it with community. And that’s fantastic. When I was talking to you, you said that sometimes you can’t tell who the workers are and who the volunteers are. And then I read that 60 percent of your meals are served and are earned through barter. So what are the kind of barters that earn you a meal at the Sisters of the Road?
KS: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. So a meal…first of all, a meal is $1.50, meal and a drink—best deal in town. We serve—
TM: A dollar fifty?!
KS: Yeah, we serve Stumptown and Coava Coffee, some of the best stuff in town.
TM: Wow! Gee, now I know where to go for a good cup of coffee.
KS: Yeah, exactly. And so folks can pay cash. We changed federal legislation so that people can use their SNAP benefits for hot food in a nonprofit café, so people can use their SNAP benefits. And then, like you said, 60 percent of people actually barter. And it can be anything from doing dishes to helping at our reservation table to bussing tables, plating the food, bringing out the food—basically the complete running of the café. We rely on volunteers. And many of those volunteers will take punch cards in exchange for their work. So a half hour of work is worth $3.00, so you can buy a meal for yourself and for a friend.
And what’s super exciting, this is the second year of the Healthy Plate Project, where we built a partnership with Portland Farmers Market, and people can take those barter cards that they earned at Sisters to shop at seven local farmers markets.
TM: Nice! Wow, that’s fantastic.
KS: Yeah, it’s amazing. And it was totally a pilot project—we didn’t know how it was going to go. And it’s been so popular. People are hungry for options, and healthy ways to feed themselves and their families. And it’s amazing.
TM: So I think what I’m hearing is that they have a card, they work, and for every hour they work they get a little punch—
KS: For every half hour they get a card that’s worth $3.00.
TM: Okay, so it’s $6.00 an hour. And then when they go to the farmers market, their card might be worth as much as $18.00? And then what happens?
KS: Yep, they can turn in up to five cards, so they can turn in $15.00 a day. And there are markets all over town on different days, so you can really increase your weekly budget. And then they receive tokens, and the tokens allow them to shop anything in the market except flowers, alcohol, and hot prepared food. So that leaves open all the produce and the berries and the goat cheese and the kimchi. And what’s wonderful is—
TM: And the wild mushrooms?
KS: And the wild mushrooms. And it’s been so lovely, because we’ve done field trips just to help people feel comfortable, because it’s really different to navigate a farmers market if you’ve never done that. And we’ll go around and sample together and talk to the vendors together and compare prices and talk strategies. And it’s just really lovely. People are so excited about trying things seasonally and comparing this strawberry and that strawberry. And it’s pretty special.
TM: So how many people are you feeding a day at the Sisters of the Road?
KS: It depends on the time of the month. At the end of the month there’s a greater need. In the summer we have a lot more travelers. But average 200 to 250 folks come through and get a meal.
TM: A day. And with volunteers. So how many volunteers are you using for those?
KS: Gosh, you know, some folks just come in and work an hour just to earn a meal or earn some credit at the farmers market. Other folks are there before I open at 7:00 and close the place down at 5:00. So for a lot of folks, it’s sort of the same value that I get from working. They come, and we’re relying on each other, and they’re working, and it’s pretty much the same thing.
TM: Well, you know, I didn’t say Kris’s title, but I think it was co-manager of the café and also co-manager of development. So to do this you have to raise lots of money, don’t you?
KS: Mm-hmm, yeah.
TM: Just, like how much money are you having to raise a year, approximately?
KS: Our budget is $1.2 million.
TM: To do that.
TM: And that’s your sole…besides donations of food, that’s your sole…to feed 250 and sometimes up to 400 people a day…
KS: Yeah, and what’s amazing is that 70 percent of those donations are from individuals. And a lot of organizations rely on grants and foundations, and we just have this huge pool of community support for what we do. And so we just get millions of donations from individuals, and that’s pretty touching to see those roll in.
TM: Do you find the same people come and volunteer every day or every week?
KS: Absolutely. Yeah, we definitely have our family, yeah. And that cycles through—some folks move on or get work or get housing somewhere else. But we really do…you know, every morning I look forward to who’s going to be there at the door, waiting for me, and who we’re going to start cooking the day’s meal together. And that’s really where the richness comes in, you know. If someone doesn’t show up for a couple days, we’re going to start asking around. And when they do show up we’re going to let them know, “Hey, like, I was really worried about you, you know? I missed you. Next time just give us a call, let us know you’re okay, because…” Yeah, I mean, we worry about each other.
TM: So you say you get to know people—you know them by their first names.
KS: Oh, absolutely. Oh, absolutely. And that’s the most, that’s the richest part of it, I think, for everyone, as a person who works there and also for people who come to eat there, because we see each other. Yeah.
TM: So you were saying, though, that they aren’t just people in Portland—that you’re getting a lot of transients this time of year. Is this a regular summertime thing?
KS: We get a lot of travelers, yep, yep, absolutely. I think people are…there’s a lot of different groups of folks traveling around the country and passing through, and then… But we always have people who’ve been coming. And we have people who’ve been coming for years, for years.
TM: Do you recognize some of them that come?
KS: Oh, yeah! And people who have been coming longer, much, much longer than I have. And one of the sweet things is there’s been a few times where someone has just sort of landed back in the city, and Portland has changed so much in the last 10 years, in the last 20 years, it’s unrecognizable.
TM: It truly is, for someone who did live here and then just comes back to visit.
KS: Yeah, exactly. And so every now and then someone will come up and they’ll say, “You know, I’ve been in prison, or I’ve been away for ten years, and this was the only corner that I recognized.” And they came back, and they came home, because it’s the only point of familiarity and they’re still welcomed. So yeah.
TM: Well, I do remember, having now lived in Portland since the 1970s, that the area where the Sisters of the Road Café is—in Portland it’s known as the Old Town—was almost all just warehouses and the homeless.
KS: Yeah, there were a lot of services down there, and there still are a lot of services, great organizations providing food and resources. And it’s right on the edge of the Pearl District, right? that’s completely developing—
TM: Well now it’s the Pearl District.
KS: Yeah, and pushing folks out. But that’s been the heart of where we take care of each other.
TM: You know, that transformation of that particular neighborhood, from being Old Town, pretty much the homeless region or certainly warehousing… And obviously, you know, homeless and undesirable characteristics are often put together. Is that, would you say that that’s probably not true, and that’s a stereotype?
KS: Yeah, that’s absolutely my experience. It’s a really unfortunate stereotype. The folks I work with are so loving, are so reliable, are so working towards bettering their opportunities in life. And I would say it’s the sort of systems in place that provide, are making barriers to that. And most people don’t want to be struggling so hard. That’s my experience.
TM: Well, all those amazing warehouses, you know, that were in that district, which is now called the Pearl District, are now condos and, you know, cooperative housing and some pretty upscale apartments. So you have this intermingling in that particular neighborhood of the affluent with the homeless. How is that working out?
KS: You know, I think there’s a lot of potential for folks to really learn from each other and see who each other is. And you can imagine, there are a lot of assumptions that are in place that create conflict. And I think one of the things that breaks my heart is a dear friend of mine who was living outside for a long time, he just, the way he talks about it is that people walk by and he’s invisible. Like so much of his life, he’s just…it’s not even that people look down. He’s just unseen. And I think that’s sort of the tragedy of… It’s fine if our worlds are colliding and mixing and we’re learning from each other. But we have to see each other, you know? And when any other person is invisible, it’s just…it’s just not right.
TM: Yeah. Often, when you think of the homeless, they’re usually single people. Is that what you’re finding? Or do you ever see that there’s whole families?
KS: You know, there are street families that form, really tight street families that look out for each other and take care of each other and support each other. And I do see families. We definitely see families with children come into the café. And not everyone who comes to the café is living outside. A lot of folks are poor. Folks might be working and it’s still, as a lot of people know, it’s still not enough. And so everybody needs a little help.
TM: So that you’re not just feeding the homeless, you’re feeding people who just simply can’t make ends meet and they’re looking for another way out?.
KS: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. A lot of…I don’t know the percentages, but a lot of folks are housed and just need more food—and need healthy food, because even if they have benefits or access to SNAP benefits, that doesn’t allow someone to make healthy choices. It just doesn’t—it’s not enough.
TM: And, you know, if we could back up a little bit, I started saying how delighted I was to hear who donates food—farmers. I was just wondering, how about describing like an average meal?
KS: Oh my goodness. All right. So today, I’ll just talk about today. Yesterday we got a huge CSA share from Food Works Farm, which is this amazing youth employment/empowerment program. And it was like five bins—I couldn’t even fit it in the fridge. So we loaded up, we had a bunch of asparagus and chard that we loaded up a pasta with, just the marinara sauce. We made this really amazing focaccia bread from scratch—we made it yesterday and it rose overnight—with some fresh rosemary. We had a really amazing salad with radishes and homemade dressing. And banana cake with a balsamic brown sugar glaze.
TM: Wow, delicious! For $1.50!
TM: And that’s only if you can afford it. You give away quite a few meals as well, don’t you?
KS: We give away meals to every first-time visitor and to folks with kids, because we realize that maybe if you have children you can’t barter. But we really work hard to find a way for folks to figure out a way to earn their meal. We’ll try to set them up with a quick job or a longer job, or just try to figure something out so that we are really in it together—it’s not so much a charity model where we have something to give, but we’re counting on you to make this work.
TM: You know, you see these folks, you get to know them, you learn their names, you feed them a meal, and then they go away. Where do they go?
KS: All different places. Like I said, some people go home—they have places that they live. Other people have camps. Other people sort of find a place to stay as each night comes. But a lot of people try to have a camp. And unfortunately, those camps, once people get settled, Portland does these sweeps. And they’re on sort of a push right now to sweep these campsites and have them not be so permanent. And unfortunately, as they’re doing the sweeps, they’re not letting folks know where they can go. So they’re just displacing them, and taking their stuff sometimes, and then expecting them to find another place, when, at the end of the night, there’s just…there is no place.
TM: Isn’t there a Dignity Village outside of Portland—not outside, but sort of out towards Marine Drive?
KS: Yeah, there’s some great models. Dignity Village is one. It’s a pretty established community. Right 2 Dream Too is right in Old Town, and that’s a rest area; people can stay there and sleep. And yet it’s just not enough. That’s what I hear. The shelters aren’t enough; the wait lists for housing are way too long. And I think it’s just a responsibility, like a shirking of responsibility, if we’re going to sort of “clean up the streets” and ask people to move, without just giving them an option. There are places that people could camp. And yeah, we should be doing that as a city.
TM: And you know, you mentioned that you have some folks who just came out of jail. And I’m assuming, are there a lot of young people?
KS: It varies, you know. There are young people, and again, the summer is, we see a younger crowd, travelers. There are a lot of vets.
KS: Yep, yep—I don’t know what the percentages are, but there are a lot of vets who are homeless. And like I said, there’s just all different reasons for why folks have ended up living outside.
TM: I really enjoyed your philosophy when I read it: nonviolence, dining with dignity. But this is the one that I wondered about: “gentle personalism.” Was does that mean?
KS: For us, what that means is sort of seeing the best in every other person, meeting them where they’re at, and seeing them as more than just their behavior. We definitely do have incidents of violence or conflict in the café, and no matter what somebody does, we also know that they’re so much more than that sort of incident or that conflict. And I think that’s sort of the heart of what we do—that we love each other for who we are.
Sisters got started by two social workers who were working in Old Town, Genny Nelson and Sandy Gooch. And at the time, they were just working with folks and realized, sort of, the state of affairs at the time was that you, to get a meal, you might listen to a sermon and then you might get served ice cream for dinner. And they realized the complete lack of dignity in that, and started to ask what folks wanted. And they always tell the story that if people had asked for a laundromat, that’s what they would have opened. But people asked for a place where they could eat and earn their meal.
And so that’s what they did. They did it for the first few years just with volunteers. I think they did a work trade to get that space, the same space that we’re in now, and it’s just slowly built up over the years. But this model has been the model from the beginning, that people can work to earn their meal.
TM: And then there’s so many aspects of it, of what you’re doing. There’s the garden, there’s the café, and you’ve talked about a couple of other programs. Tell us about the Food Justice team.
KS: Yeah, and the Food Justice team, what’s been really exciting in recent years—you know, for a long time we’ve been focused on sourcing, making sure that our meals are loaded with food. And then the next layer, sort of figuring out how our community is going to access food when they’re not in the café—you know, through the farmers market or through the garden. And last winter we started a food forum. Basically we held space for people to talk about whatever issues they wanted to talk about around food justice.
And people were really, really hungry for education. Everybody knows that they would feel better if they could eat healthy food and are just perplexed at why they can’t do that. It’s impossible. And so, you know, we had these conversations about, you know, there’s the My Plate sort of USDA suggestion of what to eat—this is all the suggestions. And then sort of layering on that where subsidies go and how that doesn’t match with what the UDSA is suggesting that people eat. So just really talking with folks about there’s reasons, there’s really good reasons why you can’t make healthy choices at the grocery store, and it’s not your fault. There are things in place that make it…that don’t incentivize healthy food choices, right? So we talk about that.
And also folks actually wanted to organize around changing our hours. So we, for 35 years, have been open Monday through Friday, and people asked us to be open Tuesdays through Saturday. And they did amazing organizing work—they collected surveys, wrote a proposal, brought it to all staff, and we’re in the trial period now through September to see what it’s like to open on Saturdays. Hopefully we’ll see more families and children coming in, and serving a need that the community asked for us. So the food justice work, moving forward, is whatever people, wherever people see the holes and what they need to happen.
TM: Boy, I bet it would be great if you could open seven days a week.
KS: I know. That’s always the first question they ask.
TM: [unclear, both are talking at once] only two days, [unclear] people are hungry.
KS: Exactly, exactly. And the thing is, in Portland there are so many organizations serving food. And a lot of folks say Portland is not a place that you can go hungry. What we do differently is sort of really prioritizing the nutrition and the nourishment above sort of the numbers—the pounds or the number of people fed.
TM: So what are some of the other organizations? I only know of one other one—that was the Rescue Mission. But there are quite a few other ones, you’re saying?
KS: Yeah, Blanchet House does really great work. Potluck in the Park is a full volunteer-run organization; they’ve been serving meals every Sunday for I don’t know how many years. And so the need has been going forever; the need for food is old, and it grows. And the supply grows—like we keep throwing more food at the problem of hungry folks. And I think the next sort of layer for organizations to do is to look at the root causes of why hunger keeps going up. Because as long as we just keep throwing food at the problem, both are going to keep growing.
TM: Well, Kris, what a beautiful program. I’m so delighted that you’re…and I’m humbled by what you’ve had to say, and I think it’s something that we all should be thinking about now. We all have such stereotypes of who is in the Good Food movement and who isn’t. And clearly, you are in the Good Food movement, probably in one of the most important parts of the Good Food movement. So we should all be thanking Kris and her 18 coworkers who are out there, day after day, feeding the homeless. Such a beautiful thing to do, and so humbling. You’re shaking your head.
KS: Absolutely. Cooking for folks? Yeah, I love it!
TM: And you know, I noticed also on where you do get… You said 70 percent of your funds come from individuals. Fantastic! I’m thrilled that I’m one of them, and now I’m embarrassed that I’m not giving more. But if people want to give money, where would they send it to?
KS: You can just go on the website, sistersoftheroad.org. And I’m not sure when this is going to be aired, but through the end of July all donations are matched dollar for dollar.
TM: And then I also see that it says Sister Meal Coupons, that you can actually get coupons for folks online too.
KS: Yeah, and that’s really great. That was something that we came up with in response to panhandling. Not everybody wants to give money, but it’s really nice to have these meal coupons that you or I could buy, and if someone’s asking for money we could offer this meal coupon for a meal at Sisters of the Road. And it’s a great way to not have someone be invisible to you, and also just a great way to start a conversation.
TM: Mm-hmm. I want to thank you so much for being with us today.
KS: Thanks so much for having me.
TM: And listeners, I hope you enjoyed another aspect of the Good Food movement that sometimes we just don’t think about.
I want to thank Kris Soebroto so much, and all of the collective that works with the Sisters of the Road, feeding the homeless. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
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