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Too much waste: Urban Gleaners rescues food

Agencies hope to expand program but need more restaurants

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Families come to Cherry Park Elementary in East Portland twice a week pick up food rescued by Urban Gleaners. Twenty-three local schools participate in their Food to Schools pantry program.  Moms, dads, kids and toddlers in strollers waited in the cold outside Cherry Park Elementary School in East Portland on a recent Monday morning.

When the doors opened at 11 a.m. (on a no-school day for the David Douglas School District), they took their turn filing inside, walking along the four long tables of food that volunteers had arranged just moments before.

Like a mini farmers’ market, there were bright green bunches of kale and lettuce, bags of salad, plastic containers of carrot muffins and tiramisu, cartons of eggs and yogurt, jars of baby food and cereal, loaves of Dave’s Killer Bread and whole wheat hamburger buns.

“You can take one of these, one of these, two of these,” a volunteer told them. But most already knew — they’d come to this school pantry before.

“If we pick this, you’ll both have to share it,” one mother told her son and daughter as they eyed a red velvet cupcake in its own package.

“I don’t want to split it — I want it all to myself,” the girl replied. The mother shrugged and added it to their bag.

Within 15 minutes, everyone in line had gone home with bags of fresh food they’ll feed their families with for the next few days.

The same thing happens on Fridays, and for those who can’t come pick it up, the school sends home bread, apples and other food through their “backpack club.”

For the past six years, at least 40 families each week have been served by the free Food to Schools program, hosted by a tiny Portland nonprofit called Urban Gleaners.

The donated items are all unserved, surplus food that’s been rescued from local grocery stores, farmers’ markets, restaurants, farms and catering events by Urban Gleaners’ volunteers and delivery drivers, like a network of ants criss-crossing the city.

And it’s not Pop-Tarts and white bread they’re rescuing. The food is straight off the shelves and kitchens of Trader Joe’s, New Seasons, Zupans, Pastaworks, Simpatica Dining Hall, Sauvie Island Organics and Bon Appetit’s catering operations, among many others.

The pantry shoppers didn’t seem to care that the limes and oranges were a bit bruised; the egg cartons contained one cracked egg; the desserts, packaged salads and sandwich wraps had been pulled on their sell-by date.

Urban Gleaners rescues about 50,000 pounds of food each week that otherwise would have gone to the landfill, where it breaks down and produces methane.

In that way, the effort is one of Portland’s biggest efforts at addressing both hunger and food waste, two of the region’s — and nation’s — biggest quandaries.

“Eighty percent of fresh water in this country is used to grow food, and 40 percent of that gets thrown away,” says Tracy Oseran, Urban Gleaners founder and executive director. “It’s horrifying.”

In Portland, about 20 percent of the region’s garbage is food waste, a problem officials at Metro and the city of Portland are working to address.

Meanwhile, one restaurant’s waste is another family’s dinner.

“It’s a gift from heaven,” says Cherry Park Principal Kate Barker, the first adopter of the Gleaners pantry program, having brought it from her former school. “I thank my lucky stars every day we have this resource.”

Gleaners need more

Today, Cherry Park is one of Urban Gleaners’ 23 free school pantry programs in the city, all serving high-poverty schools in East Portland.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Hugo Salas grabs a carton of eggs from his mother after selecting their pantry items at Cherry Park Elementary. Urban Gleaners would like to expand its program but needs more restaurants to donate surplus food. At Cherry Park, 80 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals; the school serves many of them three meals a day (including a hot after-school supper served through the SUN Schools program).

Urban Gleaners’ leaders would love to expand to more schools, since it’s relatively simple to run — just a bit of space and two to four trained, reliable volunteers on-site are needed.

The problem is — ironically — not enough access to local surplus food.

“We get emails a couple times a week — people saying our school would really like it,” Diana Foss, Urban Gleaners’ director of operations and one of three and a half paid staff members, including the delivery drivers.

“We definitely need more food,” adds Oseran, a former caterer who started the program in 2006 when she saw no other organization doing exactly this. “The need is overwhelming.”

Urban Gleaners relies on the help of about 40 regular volunteers, who pick up food from restaurants, grocery stores, farmer’s markets and catered events across town.

Just six restaurants have weekly pickups scheduled. That’s a stunning reality considering Portland’s crowded and sustainability-conscious food scene.

“We’re like the foodie capital of the world, and yet we and everyone else is just tossing all this food away,” Oseran says.

Urban Gleaners is in talks with Metro and the city about how to expand restaurant participation to get the food to more people who need it.

One of the challenges they are trying to address is lack of awareness of how it works — legally and logistically.

Both state and federal Good Samaritan laws protect people who donate food in good faith from liability.

And it does take some extra work to put leftover food in a food-safe container and store it in the walk-in fridge until pickup, but it becomes second nature over time, Foss says.

“For us it’s really easy,” says Bruce Kehe, spokesman for Hopworks Urban Brewery, one of the restaurants with weekly pickups.

Twice a week since April, Urban Gleaners has picked up about 30 to 60 pounds of pizza slices and pretzels from Hopworks’ two locations.

“We produce the food in-house for the day,” Kehe says. “For various reasons they don’t get served in the restaurant, but it’s still completely within code. It’s a great opportunity for us to share those items.”

The Moda Center and restaurants at Portland International Airport also send their food to the Gleaners on an occasional basis.

Prior to the Gleaners, Kehe says Hopworks gave their food to St. Vincent de Paul, which runs a Food Recovery Network they had to scale back last year.

The network used to pick up edible leftover food from about 30 locations but now is down to just nine, says Sharon Hills, St. Vincent de Paul’s exeutive director.

Those include Nike’s restaurants, the University of Portland, and chains like Chipotle restaurants, Olive Garden and Pizza Schmizza.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Hugo Salas grabs a carton of eggs from his mother after selecting their pantry items at Cherry Park Elementary. Urban Gleaners would like to expand its program but needs more restaurants to donate surplus food. Last year they rescued 195,000 pounds of food — mostly sandwiches, salads and pasta — headed for the landfill. Volunteers bring the food to their warehouse in Sellwood and repack it, label it and freeze it before distribution to local organizations.

Due to a lack of revenue, St. Vincent de Paul scaled back last year from five positions to 1.7.

The hope is to start growing again, to pick up more food and serve the tremendous need.

“We can’t get as much; can’t give out as much,” Hills says. “The ones that do get it, they really love it.”

Avoiding the landfill

So what’s the future of food collection in Portland?

Both Metro and the city of Portland have efforts underway to address the issue; parts of their initiatives will be coming to a critical juncture soon.

Specifically, Metro is working with local food generators — grocery stores and restaurants, among others — to divert more of their edible and inedible food waste from the landfill.

For the inedible scraps, “We have mandatory requirements on the books, but never moved to make that an enforcement-oriented program,” says Bruce Walker, solid waste and recycling program manager for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Susainability.

In order to enforce the requirement, Walker says, there must be enough capacity to hold and process all of that organic waste that gets composted and converted into energy at JC Biomethane in Junction City.

Metro is currently working on finding more capacity for increased loads of food waste though their Solid Waste Roadmap process, set for a decision next year.

For the edible food scraps, meanwhile, Metro is working with food generators to expand its Recycle at Work program, an initiative that’s helped businesses reduce their waste since 2004.

About 2,500 businesses each year throughout the region participate, but there are about 60,000 businesses in the area, says Will Elder, Metro’s business waste reduction planner.

“(Restaurants are) a very busy industry,” he says. “It’s traditionally very difficult to tap into because of resource time and limitations.”

There are about 1,000 large food businesses (with 50-plus employees) in the region, Elder says, which Metro will target first.

The goal is to recruit at least 100 new businesses into the program, Elder says. Since spring they’ve already attracted 25 that have asked for assistance.

Gleaners’ Oseran is excited by the potential. Her agency soon will get a third delivery van, so they’ll be able to designate a driver for restaurant pickups. “If Metro can get enough (restaurants) to donate, we’ll pick it up,” she says. “I won’t turn food away.”