Salem extends helping hand to an overlooked community disproportionately affected by the pandemic

Jerron Love helps load a produce box into a car on Friday, Sept. 4. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Jackie Leung and Sandra Wells stood outside Peoples Church in northeast Salem Friday morning, helping distribute food to community members in need, specifically those from Salem’s Pacific Islander community.

Three cars were lined up before the event started, waiting for boxes of fresh greens and watermelons from the Marion Polk Food Share. Leung and Wells asked drivers how many members were in their household and loaded the cars with the produce boxes.

“Demand, if anything, is increasing,” said Leung, the executive director of the Micronesian Islander Community and a Salem city councilor who organized the food distribution event.

Another food box distribution is planned for Friday, Sept. 11 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at 4500 Lancaster Dr. N.E.

Marion County’s Pacific Islanders have been disproportionately impacted by Covid, with 409 cases per 10,000 — nearly double the rate of cases seen in the Latino community and more than six times the rate of whites.

Leung said there are issues with food access and unemployment benefit applications are either not available in native languages or are poorly translated.

Many Pacific Islanders work in essential industries like food processing facilities which have been driving workplace outbreaks locally because physical distancing is difficult to maintain in those places. Wells, a community health worker with the Micronesian Islander Community, said many families also live in multi-generational households which makes isolating a challenge.

Wells said there’s a stigma in asking for help.

She said relatives tell her when a family is struggling, so she sends gift cards to them to purchase food. Wells said she handed out some of the gift cards in La Grande, because Islanders in that community were given shelf-stable foods like canned beans and weren’t sure how to prepare them. The gift cards to places like Asian markets helped offer more culturally appropriate foods for people, Wells said.

Jackie Leung, left, Jerron Love, center, and Jackson Lowery, right, help distribute food boxes during an event on Sept. 4. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Leung said Covid has exposed existing health inequities within the Pacific Islander community, which suffer from the highest rates of heart disease, hypertension, asthma, cancer and diabetes in comparison with all other ethnicities.

“We just don’t want this to be the next sexy thing. More of a partnership, not more of a band aid,” she said.

Leung said she’s trying to centralize the messaging on how community members can get help. She’s been active on the Micronesian Islander Community Facebook page and uses word of mouth to let people know about events like Friday’s food distribution.

The Marion Polk Food Share supplied the produce through the federal Farmers to Families Food Box program, which was extended for an additional three weeks, said Josh Anderson, an agency relations coordinator with the Food Share.

Last week, Ian Dixon-McDonald, Marion Polk Food Share vice president of programs, said food bank sites have been seeing the number of visits per month double to 20,000 since the pandemic started. 

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Have a story tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.