PORTLAND, Ore. — A local food bank helping some of Portland’s most-in-need neighbors says they’ve been hit repeatedly by vandals and thieves this year.

But despite the multiple hits, they’re not giving up serving the community.

While in most ways, Portland has made it through the worst of the pandemic, others are still feeling its impacts on income and hardship, especially when it comes to food insecurity.

“We saw a 20% increase in demand, overall, the first year of the pandemic and last year that grew an additional 15%,” said Stephanie Barr, executive director of Lift UP. “We see over a third of people coming to our pantry, accessing services for the first time.”

Lift Urban Portland, or Lift UP, serves thousands of low-income residents — many in downtown and northwest Portland. Last year, alone, they distributed more than 580,000 pounds of food. Much of that is made possible with their small fleet of delivery vans to not only bring food to clients but also pick up food from grocery stores and community partners.

However, since June, crooks have targeted the non-profit’s vans multiple times, stealing at least three catalytic converters, cutting the fuel lines multiple times and even stealing one of the vans a few weeks ago. Luckily, it was found the next day, but with almost $2,000 in damages — the non-profit has endured a totla of more than $6500 in damages.

“Our stolen van was actually found by a community member who saw our van outside and she instinctively knew that our van didn’t belong there, so she had reached out to us within 24 hours of it being stolen,” said Cecilia Estraviz, operations manager of Lift UP. “We appreciate that type of community which is why we do our work.”

However, it didn’t stop their mission, as some volunteers offered up their own personal cars to help.

“We rely on our vans heavily. A majority of our food is picked up at community partners all over the downtown and Portland area, as well as we rely on our vans to get us from building to building and door to door to deliver food boxes to clients,” said Estraviz. “Without our vans, we definitely have to jump through many hoops to continue to deliver food. Just because we have a stolen van doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing our work because that means someone didn’t get their food for the day.”

Since this summer, the damages and resulting costs are more than $6,500, a major hit when despite 90% of their food being donated, Lift UP still spends $70,000 each year on food purchases to fill the gap, especially difficult with inflation.

“My heart sank when our van was vandalized the first time, the second time, the third time because it feels disheartening. Our logo is right on the side, it’s clear what we do,” said Barr. “As much as I’m sad that our community is struggling, it’s just really discouraging to know that people know this is for a food pantry and they’re still making the choice to target our vans.”

While they hope the vandals will stop, the non-profit says they’re still thankful for the opportunities to give back to the community in any way they can.

“This work can be difficult but it is inherently joyful to bring food to people,” said Barr.

With the holiday season approaching, Lift UP says the best way to help is to donate your time or money if you’re able to — from helping put together food boxes and helping with deliveries to hosting food and fund drives. The organization says they’ve also been able to get help from a local credit union, SELCO, who helped wrap their delivery vans to make them more noticeable, as well as install catalytic converter protectors.