Children’s laughter rattles from the playground structure, ricocheting off a nearby, sun-dappled table topped with 40 warm, homemade vegan meals. A man dressed for brisk January weather walks his bike down Acorn Park’s central path and nears the park bench.
“Hey, good to see ya! Would you like some lunch?” Corey Prunier asks the man. Fellow Lunch People volunteer Alyssa Young places two meal boxes on a neighboring table, and with a mutual, masked, “thank you” the man leaves, food in hand. No money exchanged, no questionnaire submitted.
At Monroe Park two miles away, Lunch People co-founder Miranda McKeever greets noonday passersby with free tea, cookies, masks, and one more delectable treat: news of the team’s new public-benefit restaurant, Acorn Café.
“Miranda and I believe in a lot of things, food security being one, the environment being another, and the benefits of a plant-based diet connected with those,” Prunier explained in an interview. Despite being vegan, he said he relishes times they’ve served restaurant-donated salmon and other surplus delicacies at Acorn Park. “We’re plant pushers, not meat shamers.”
Lunch People began long before President Biden’s first executive orders underscored the U.S.’s ongoing hunger emergency. Among the first in the Oregon Food Sector’s mass layoffs, the couple immediately recognized COVID’s implications for the most vulnerable.
“I grew up on free lunches all through elementary and middle school,” Prunier said, reflecting on the consequences of school closures for low-income families. “So I saw that as potentially catastrophic.”
In April 2020 they began distributing free homemade meals at Acorn Park, where they’ve been a Saturday staple nearly every week since, at times serving 100 lunches. Opening a not-for-profit café was the last thing they had imagined. “We just looked at it as a temporary, week by week, Band-Aid measure to help people newly struggling to access food,” McKeever said.
Oregon led all 50 state’s in reducing food insecurity on a statewide basis from 2014–2019, according to the USDA. COVID completely reversed that: Oregon State University’s analysis shows household food insecurity more than doubling from a record-low 9.8% in 2017–2019 to roughly 25% by December 2020.
Food for Lane County Executive Director Tom Mulhern explained by phone that USDA surveys measure food insecurity — and by extension, hunger — through questions like, “Do you ever skip meals because you can’t afford food?” or “Do you ever let your kids eat but you don’t?”
McKeever recognizes that surveys and well-established resources can’t reach everyone who would say “yes” to such questions. “It was important to me that we provide a low barrier resource that everyone could access regardless of their situation,” McKeever said.
Barriers exist in all forms: bureaucratic formality, geographic distance, resource knowledge, and cultural stigma.
Lunch People’s Partnership Advocate Ericka Thessen said she recognizes these barriers well from her years as a nurse practitioner, parent, and affiliate of Community Outreach through Radical Empowerment. She credits Lunch People with transcending these in a way that will only grow when Acorn Café moves in at 769 Monroe St, assuming the lease from Mandala Café.
“The café is really central to where a lot of need is, and to where a lot of services in the community already are, so it’s a great space,” Thessen said, with emphasis on Eugene’s houseless community members.
Acorn Café will host a daily donation-based meal, free fridge and pantry, pay-it-forward meal gratuities, community resource support, mutual-aid workshops, at-risk youth job training, garden space, and affordable plant-based food — all in coordination with local farms of the Willamette Valley.
Income to sustain these programs comes from partnerships with local non-profits, ongoing Patreon sponsorships, donations, and the sale of meals and merchandise. The community support reflects the strides Lunch People made in solidarity with some of the most vulnerable through 2020.
“Often we are the only ones that are going to show up to help each other,” McKeever explained, highlighting the ethos and strength of grassroots coalitions that meet needs where larger institutions fail to do so.
Prunier echoed her point: “It’s a way to combat powerlessness.”
Lunch People’s empowered stance fueled their relief efforts when they helped local farms save and distribute a half ton of produce and 150 boxes of food during unprecedented climate fires in September.
These sorts of efforts inspired community support of Acorn Café fundraisers, one of which 2020 mayoral candidate Zondie Zinke attended.
“When you have that donation-based meal, you’re just so happy, all of your little tastebuds are open to it because you’re enjoying more than just the food,” she said.
“And I imagine that will be the case at the café because you’re supporting a different economic model, a whole vision that the world really needs.”
Acorn Café began their soft opening in Feb. 2021. “Our first lease is for nine months,” McKeever explained, adding, “Corey says we’re taking this one to term.”