We’ve all heard it: “Portland has more strip clubs per capita than any other city in America.” With twice as many strip clubs as public restrooms, the City of Roses boasts everything from intimate rock ’n’ roll to entirely vegan-themed clubs. Despite their widespread popularity and protection under Oregon state law, strippers are often faced with challenges that are anything but sexy. Access to healthy food is one of them.
Restaurants in Portland are legally required to serve food if they serve alcohol, but late-night dining options are limited. Many smaller clubs don’t even have chefs past 8 or 9 pm, and greasy menus make it difficult for strippers to find something other than deep fried drunk food to eat on the job. The fact that very few restaurants are open by the time they get off work, coupled with limited public transit hours, only exacerbates the problem.
Early last year, one woman set out to fix it.
Nikeisah Newton began preparing healthy to-go meals from her kitchen for her own circle of stripper friends. Newton, a chef, started making to-go meals for her former partner, a stripper and full-time student who hardly had time to cook for herself between gigs. Many of Newton’s friends who were DJs, cocktail waitresses, dancers, and bouncers were all in the same boat. Her partner would routinely bring healthy meals with her to the club, and when she was met with interest and positive feedback from others, she couldn’t help but share her realization with Newton: “You know, they would pay you if this was a delivery service,” she said. Flash forward to January 25, 2019, Newton’s first official delivery as Meals 4 Heels, Portland’s first late-night clean meal delivery service tailored to strippers and sex workers.
Now, Newton cooks, assembles, and delivers meals directly to people who ask for them with 24 hours’ notice. The system is simple: sex workers in need of a healthy meal can DM @meals4heels on Instagram or Twitter or send a text message to place an order. Newton prepares $15 bowls that are far from a sub-par mix of steamed rice and broccoli: each one combines seasoned grains or noodles and farm-fresh produce from local farmers markets with vegan, vegetarian, and various protein options available. The “freegan vegan,” one of the most popular options, combines oven roasted yams, sweet potatoes, apples, savory sautéed mushrooms, crispy quinoa, and kale, topped with toasted coconut and salty spiced nuts. Newton takes pride in doing all of the shopping and meal prep herself. “I like to say every meal I make has a little bit of me in there,” Newton says.
Before the pandemic hit, she was distributing as many as 20 meals a week, but numbers have been lower lately as strip clubs struggle to stay afloat. That hasn’t stopped Newton from finding ways to continue supporting her community. Over the past few months, she has used her time to feed frontline workers and protesters and raise funds for Black, LGBTQ, and woman-owned businesses. She’s teamed up with PDX Trans Housing and Free Lunch Collective to provide hundreds of meals each week for houseless individuals. She’s worked with Pride NW and fed protestors at the Trans Pride March last month. She’s partnered up with Snack Bloc, a volunteer group providing free snacks, water, and supplies to protestors, to serve bowls of sweet potato noodles and tom kha-roasted cauliflower.
In tandem with her support of the protests against police brutality, Newton has been a vocal ally of the Portland Stripper Strike, a now-nationwide movement demanding equitable working conditions and opportunities for Black strippers. Portland’s mostly male-owned strip clubs have a reputation for hiring almost exclusively white dancers, Newton says, limiting work opportunities for people of color and forcing them to find work farther away.
“No one ever told me that as a business owner I would get to meet and interact with so many community leaders and different marginalized groups,” she says. “It’s more than amazing, incredible, wholesome, grassroots, sustainable, and empowering.”
Newton hopes Meals 4 Heels can keep feeding as many people as possible, with the goal of selling grab-and-go versions of her bowls at grocery stores like Green Zebra and New Seasons and eventually establishing her own food cart in Portland with more regular business hours. “I’ll feed whoever’s hungry,” Newton says, but she still plans to make supporting sex workers a top priority. From July 16-18, her two most popular bowls will be featured in the Pix-O-Matic, a 24 hour contactless vending machine on E Burnside.
The business owner doesn’t feel like she’s doing anything extraordinary. “Some people say I might be a role model, whatever … that’s not my thing,” Newton says. “There’s a lot of freedom in feeding your community, and I’m just incredibly grateful the world has embraced it.”