32, Operations Manager at Lift Urban Portland (Lift UP)
2022 Prize Winner
Cecilia Estraviz’s actual job title at the food agency Lift Urban Portland is operations manager, but she has come up with some more clever ones.
As the manager of Lift UP’s food warehouse in Northwest Portland’s industrial area, Estraviz is a “food Tetris expert,” because she accepts lots of food, stores it safely, and then gets it out to her clients. A Lift UP volunteer deemed her an “Incremental Improver” because each time the volunteer arrived at the warehouse, Estraviz had changed something small to improve the experience for everyone.
Finally, all the physical moving of canned foods stacked on pallets makes her quip that her job is “CrossFit with helping people.”
Those pallets are loaded noticeably lower than they were a few months ago due to the end of the government’s COVID-19 relief funds and the rise in inflation. Add in skyrocketing fuel prices, stolen vans, supply chain issues, heat waves, ice storms and wildfires, and it is an exceptionally challenging time to be fighting hunger, says Lift UP executive director Stephanie Barr. (And a hopeful one, given that President Biden has vowed to end U.S. hunger by 2030.)
Still, “Ceci doesn’t accept that hunger is an inevitable, unsolvable problem,” Barr says. “She sees the systemic issues that create hunger but she keeps her focus on ensuring our neighbors have the food they need to stay healthy and secure.”
Estraviz oversees the on-site food programs at 50 low-income buildings in downtown and Northwest Portland, serving over 3,000 food-insecure people each year. Twenty-seven of the buildings have on-site food pantries where Lift UP saw a 57% increase in food distribution in the past year.
And it’s not just cans of chili and boxes of macaroni: One September morning, Lift UP was distributing broccoli, eggs, bread and a late-summer bounty of peaches and zucchini.
That said, she doesn’t judge clients for the food choices they make.
“When was the last time you were at the grocery store and you went up to someone’s grocery cart who had macaroni and said, ‘Hey, that’s not the healthiest thing to eat,’” she says. “You didn’t because no one does that. It’s really disrespectful.”
Estraviz, 32, grew up in a single-parent home in Southwest Portland. As a financial aid student at Jesuit High School with a Spanish-speaking mother, there was “a lot of otherness” in her childhood. One of the ways she felt different was that her kitchen had plenty of staples such as beans and tortillas, but her pantry wasn’t overflowing with abundance like she saw at friends’ houses.
“It wasn’t until I got older and started reflecting on it where I realized, ‘Oh, I was in a food-insecure household,’” she says. “I don’t think we had the language for it.”
One in five Oregonians experience food insecurity right now, according to the Oregon Food Bank. It’s time for people to update their assumptions about who visits food banks. Estraviz just helped Oregon Health & Science University set up its student food pantry, for example.
“It’s families, people with student loans, people whose homes have burned down—it’s things that can happen to every single one of us,” she says.
Skidmore Prizes are sponsored by Comcast