Nov 03 2012

How Urban Gleaners Rescues a Wasted Opportunity

It's no surprise that living in an age of globalized trade and supermarket chains has changed the way we shop for food. We expect that the food we want will be available, and that it will be available in abundance. A grocery store is always stocked, often with the exact same foods whether you're shopping on a Wednesday in August or a Friday in March. Your local farmers' market is (ideally) burgeoning with just-picked fruits and vegetables. No matter where we live or how we buy food, most have us have grown accustomed to seeing large quantities of food welcoming us each time we shop.

But our abundance of food options hides the inefficiency of our food system. Studies have found that 40% of food in the United States goes uneaten due to losses in distribution, processing, farming, retail, and household waste. Fresh food, unlike clothing or electronics, is perishable.

When perishable food starts to reach the end of its shelf life, where does it go? An NRDC study found that grocery stores waste about $15 billion in unsold food. Food writer Jonathan Bloom worked in a local grocery store for a few months in his ongoing research on wasted food: he began his first day by throwing out 50 pounds of produce. At this particular store, “culling” non-packaged produce is based on appearance, not date.

And while grocery stores frequently study consumer behavior in an attempt to predict how many shoppers they might see in a given week or month, the unavoidable reality is that not all of the perishable food will be sold.

Farmers' markets are all too familiar with this fact. On a sunny, summer day, you can expect to see a farmers' market full of eager shoppers snatching up freshly picked produce; on days like this, a farm should plan to sell most of what they trucked into the city. But people aren't consistent food shoppers, especially when their neighborhood farmers' market is open only one day a week . In addition to people's changing schedules, weather drastically effects how much a farmer might sell at the market. I was reminded of the weather's effects several weekends ago, as I shopped at Portland's PSU and King Farmers Markets. Due to chilly, rainy weather, instead of a 25 minute wait at Pine State Biscuits, we ordered immediately. And instead of patiently waiting to pick out produce, I was the only one standing under many farmers' tents.

As the public becomes increasingly aware of the inefficiencies in our food system, certain solutions have developed, including commercial food recyclers and state-wide initiatives aimed at recycling the millions of tons of food that go unsold.

Food system inefficiencies don't just result in waste. Despite the abundance of food at markets, grocery stores, and restaurants, Feeding America reports that 50.1 million Americans live in food insecure households. On a local level, studies have found that Oregon is in the top 5 states with the highest rate of food insecure children.

So on one hand, our country's food system produces food to the point of excess, wasting not only the food itself, but also money and resources. This wasted food also releases methane gas into the ozone layer as it decomposes. On the other hand, a large percentage of Americans can't count on consistent meals.

This is where gleaning comes in. When I first shared with a few people that I was gleaning at King Farmer's Market, I received confused looks about the word. Gleaning? The traditional definition of gleaning is "to gather grain left behind by reapers". The modern definition means to gather leftover food products that are unsellable and redistribute them.

Tracy Oseran created Portland's Urban Gleaners in 2006 after hearing an NPR piece on gleaning, as she recognized the wasted opportunity of redirecting food waste from trash and compost to hungry Portlanders. Instead of farmers and grocery stores trashing or composting their unsold perishable items, Oseran saw a different avenue: redistribute the food (in many cases whole, fresh, and seasonal products) to Portland's network of food kitchens and schools. As Urban Gleaners' website states today, "Hunger is less a problem of scarce resources but inefficient distribution."

The idea of gleaning immediately clicked with Oseran – as she explains, "we're picking up something that would be thrown away and taking it to people who need it" – so she set out to locate a Portland gleaning organization to which she could donate her time. Discovering that no such organization existed, she started calling a number of Portland area restaurants, asking for food that they might otherwise throw out. She eventually connected with Bluehour, which donated two huge containers of fava bean puree. Oseran brought these containers to Blanchet House, a charitable organization dedicated to providing food and temporary housing to Portlanders in need. Urban Gleaners, and their partnership with Blanchet House, officially started that night.

Oseran donated food almost exclusively to Blanchet House for a few years as she worked to build connections with local grocery stores and markets. When she began to glean more food than Blanchet House had capacity for, Urban Gleaners started to deliver gleaned food to agencies like Transition Projects, New Avenues, and Lift Urban Portland . Today, Urban Gleaners connects 32 food organizations (grocery stores and farmers markets and businesses like Dave's Killer Bread) to 23 agencies and schools. Assistant Director Emily Kanter shared that Urban Gleaners redistributed 571,000 pounds of gleaned food last year!

As I became invested in gleaning food from King Market each Sunday, I also grew curious about the other cogs in this non-profit. What other kind of people glean? Where else is food gleaned from? And how is it redistributed? With organizational help from Kanter, I visited Sauvie Island Organics, Zupan's, Shemanski Park Farmers' Market, Cherry Park Elementary School, and watched a hand-off at Blanchet House.

I was able to see each step in the gleaning process, learn more about the people involved on all ends, and in some cases, witness food that I gleaned find its way into a family's shopping bag or box. The food I collect, along with the food Lisa Moes collects at Shemanski Farmers Market, Dougal Williams collects from Zupan's, and the food Sauvie Island Organics directly donates makes its way to food kitchens like Blanchet House and schools like Cherry Park. Urban Gleaners' efficiency hinges on the ability of their driver, John, to pick up food each day (usually food that's been donated the day before) and drive it to multiple organizations across the city. While he's driving and redistributing boxes of food, scheduled volunteers (Urban Gleaners has a network of 35 volunteers) are gleaning and restocking the fridges that he's just emptied. When the food arrives at its specific destination, volunteers and staff members at each organization take over, lugging boxes in, arranging food on tables, or sending it into the kitchen.

Ultimately, food that might have been destined for a compost bin or a dumpster is nourishing people – and building a stronger community. As Oseran says, "the only thing that expands without stopping is the need. The need is always there."

The slideshow below documents the journey of food through the Urban Gleaners system, along with more information about the people that make Urban Gleaners a reality. If you have any questions about how Urban Gleaners works, feel free to ask them below. If you're interested in volunteering or donating food, please visit Urban Gleaners' website.