By Danielle Roslevich

While the Portland nonprofit Preble Street is perhaps best known for its housing services for those experiencing homelessness, or for its collaboration in Portland’s Medication Assisted Recovery Program, the organization also provides many other services to respond to community needs, including a variety of food programs. One of these is the Culturally Appropriate Food Program.

In 2020 alone, Preble Street provided over one million meals, a reflection of the increasing needs in the community for food support and access to healthy meals. The food programs offer mobile food services and soup kitchens along with a food pantry for those experiencing food insecurity and housing instability or homelessness.

In February 2021, Preble Street launched the Culturally Appropriate Food Initiative, with help from a $25,000 grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation for a pilot program. The Culturally Appropriate Food Initiative is designed to address the particular needs of immigrant community members experiencing hunger. The initiative recognizes the need not only for healthy and nourishing food, but for meals familiar – and therefore comforting – to new arrivals to the United States. Senior Director of Food Programs and Facilities Joe Conroy explained that Preble Street recognized a growing need as migrant families continued to arrive throughout the pandemic, with 70 migrant families, or 200 individuals, unable to be housed in the family shelter. Those families currently live in overflow shelters, including in motels where parents can’t cook meals for their children because they have no access to kitchens, and often are without the resources to purchase prepared foods, let alone African foods.

During the summer of 2019, Preble Street joined forces with community associations and created a similar, temporary emergency food program for those seeking asylum. The city transformed the Portland Exposition Building, or the Portland “Expo” into a makeshift shelter to welcome a wave of migrant families who had crossed the southern border of the U.S. and made their way to Maine. Over 600 of these families came to Portland between June and December 2019, the majority in the space of a few months. Preble Street provides the food for Portland’s homeless, including that summer’s “Expo families.” With the help of immigrant-led organizations in Maine, Preble Street quickly realized that the new arrivals were hungry because they were not eating many of the foods being offered, such as pasta dishes, and bagels – foods totally unknown to them.

So Preble Street cooks worked beside volunteer resident immigrants and learned to cook more culturally appropriate foods. The response from the newcomers showed how meaningful the change in menu options was. They were grateful for familiar foods that they could easily digest, and the families felt they were being welcomed into Portland with open arms – with cooked meals that tasted like home as the messenger. After the success of the 2019 program, Preble Street knew it could again provide culturally appropriate meals to new arrivals housed in motels (because of COVID safety protocols).

Khadija Ahmed, now Preble Street food programs supervisor leading the Culturally Appropriate Food Initiative, first joined Preble Street five years ago as a volunteer. She has spent three years focusing on cultural programs. Staff at the organization said she was instrumental in creating this pilot program, which dovetails with her constant goal of catering to the immigrant population and helping them find their way in Maine upon entry. Her primary role is planning and preparing meals, but she also regularly visits the motels herself to deliver food and check in with families to see how they are and if they need any additional resources beyond meals.

With her help and direction in the kitchen, Preble Street is now able to offer Central and East African meals to those in the overflow shelter system. Ahmed explained that the current pilot program is much smaller than the temporary summer 2019 program. Now there are a generous number of suppliers, including local farmers, who donate to the program. This enables greater flexibility in the program, so that Ahmed is able to cook new recipes. She often switches traditional African ingredients for those that are in-season in Maine as a great way to show the migrant families that they can cook familiar foods in new ways by adapting to locally available ingredients.

Still, the bulk of the food remains traditional and includes whole tilapia fish – heads included – along with a special hot sauce made by Ahmed herself. Fufu is very popular and she adds it to the menu when time allows. Ahmed incorporates foods more common in America as well, to help families transition into the United States, specifying that this is particularly important for children, who will eat some meals at school.

Ahmed said program recipients consistently express an abundance of gratitude. “It is nice to get food that their mother would cook, and they are grateful for the access to these foods. They may have to be flexible compared to what they are used to, but they are so appreciative and feel a nice sense of security,” she said. As an immigrant herself, she finds running the Culturally Appropriate Food Initiative very rewarding, and feels fulfilled by her ability to reach so many people and families under this new program.

As of April, the Culturally Appropriate Food Initiative has distributed almost 8,000 meals to immigrant families since its launch in February. Three times a week, the program provides 120 family-sized meals delivered primarily to those temporarily residing in the motels. Next year, both Conroy and Ahmed hope to expand the program to continue serving the growing immigrant population. Conroy is allocating $175,000 in next year’s budget, and expects to be able to sustain the program, given the positive feedback and strong support. The goal is to provide meals seven days a week.

While the program will surely continue in some form, Conroy explained that it is unclear exactly where the meals will be delivered, now that the tourism season is approaching and motels will begin to request their rooms back from the shelter. “But we will rise up to any challenge to make sure people do not go hungry,” he said. Preble Street stays informed regarding immigration trends, actively gathering data and information through community partners, including the city of Portland, and uses this to identify and assess food needs across the community. The organizers at Preble Street participate in a local asylum seekers stakeholder group, and anticipate that the immigrant population will continue to grow in Maine, with greater need for the Culturally Appropriate Food Initiative expected in the future. They plan to stay on top of trends and respond to them as best and as quickly as possible.

The Culturally Appropriate Food Initiative team has high hopes for this program and is working hard to maintain these new services. Aside from community partnerships and long-term funding, the greatest need is for volunteer cooks and drivers. Ahmed said that so far volunteers have shown great excitement about learning to cook African food and share African culture. While training takes time, Ahmed said she always needs more volunteers for the program. “More volunteers means more opportunity to get food to people,” she said. “It could mean making sure there is fufu at least once a week!”

For those interested in getting involved with this initiative, Preble Street is actively seeking volunteers to prepare and deliver foods. Information is available on the Preble Street website under the volunteer page. The communication department can always be reached by phone for information on how to help in other ways: