By Teddy Siker
Sticky buns, glistening with sweetness, flaky golden croissants, doughnuts oozing maple filling, and triangular scones coated with snow-white icing all sit exposed in open boxes, shoved next to each other on metal trolleys.
Nearby, mesh bags of small seedless oranges spill over on chunks of cut melon and berries that peer through plastic containers. Red and white cans of Reddi-whip lie on their sides on top of dozens of Siggi’s Icelandic-style yogurts. It is as if some frenzied shopper randomly pulled these gourmet treats off the orderly shelves of Zupan’s market on West Burnside and carted them to a cluttered and smelly back storeroom, hurling everything on racks in a jumbled collection. There, the abundance waits, in a kind of purgatory, saved from the metal trash bins outside the garage doors, until a volunteer arrives to pack it all up in spare bins and drive it across the Willamette to a warehouse in Southeast Portland.
I volunteered with the Portland non-profit Urban Gleaners when I was in Middle School, and for years this scene of excess stayed in my head. It disgusted me that such beautiful, expensive food would be headed for the trash. At the same time, I felt uneasy about my own habits of waste: leaving half an eggs benedict at Stepping Stone Cafe or dumping muffins that did not turn out right when I was baking. I wondered where all that food ended up after it was dropped off at the Urban Gleaners warehouse. Did children or older people eat the delicious-looking sticky buns? How did those cans of whipped cream get used? Why did Zupan’s have so much more food than it could sell, week after week?
Three years later, on a slushy Wednesday morning this March, I visited the warehouse at Urban Gleaners’ headquarters to find the answers. When I arrived at the rectangular mint green building on Southeast Sixth Avenue, just off Burnside, two white vans with the organization’s logo were in the parking lot, waiting by closed garage doors. The neighborhood appeared partly rundown and partly gentrified: On the sidewalk across the street, several men stood with carts full of belongings, while opposite to them people were eating inside the big glass windows of a Ramen restaurant. I entered the black iron gates of the Urban Gleaners parking lot, feeling a bit nervous about my impending interview, and walked towards the garage doors. “Are you Teddy,” asked a tall, pale white, 32-year-old guy with a beard, wearing a yellow beanie and a t-shirt. He turned out to be Urban Gleaners driver Mike Long, a 32-year-old whose job it is to pick food up from the restaurants, grocery stores and companies that would otherwise go to waste and to deliver it to community centers, schools and housing complexes. Mike’s gentle and easy going demeanor made me comfortable right away. He walked me into the warehouse, which was about the size of a garage that could fit eight cars. Every step was a different smell. One pace to the right, the chalkiness of stale bread and the sweetness of cookies filled the air. One step to the left, boxes of broccoli and potatoes gave off a musty, earthy aroma. The open, fluorescent lit room was an endless display of colors: blood red oranges, yellow bananas and dark green kale in one box. Pink-frosted cookies and pale yellow spaghetti in another. Wafting over the entire space was the smell of the baking granola in the back, which I later learned was a product Urban Gleaners makes and sells to help fund its operations (Cacciata). A row of 10 giant silver refrigerators lined the wall, covered with children’s drawings thanking Urban Gleaners for the food they got. Mike showed me how to weigh batches of food on a giant metal scale. We then spent about twenty long minutes packing up boxes with selected breads, pre-made salads in plastic containers, bottles of kombucha, jugs of milk, cheeses, and of course, a wide variety of pastries from Zupan’s. It was hard work, since some of the boxes were really heavy, at least 40 pounds, and it seemed to me this kind of work could get old fast.
After Mike and I loaded the food into one of the Urban Gleaners vans, I climbed up into the shotgun seat and we set off on the trafficky, wet streets towards the Peninsula Park Community Center where we were scheduled to do a drop off for a weekly pantry. As we drove, I asked Mike why he took a job loading and unloading food and driving it around. Mike told me that it makes him feel satisfied saving food from getting wasted and providing it to people who need it. He said, “Nonprofits aren’t exactly luxurious. I’m not making a ton of money. But I can’t imagine working for an organization where I was more satisfied. The work is great. The people I work with are great. I could never really work for a for-profit company because I am too obsessed with service” (Long). Growing up in the town of Kelso, Washington, a place he described as very small, very economically depressed and riddled with drug issues, depression and poverty, Mike was always taking care of other people’s needs and emotional states — a quality he carried into adulthood. “I find it most natural to take care of other people. It has a lot to do with my childhood and the town I came from. I grew up financially stable in a community that was pretty unstable. A lot of my friends were very poor,” he told me (Long). After he graduated from Evergreen State College, he travelled the world for six years, going to Rwanda and Alaska and doing environmental work in communities there. From those travels he learned that when one species is sick, it will be felt across the whole ecosystem. “Everyone’s going to benefit if we all take care of each other,” Mike said (Long). When he came back to the U.S., he was bothered by how much food he saw wasted. He had been to a food bank in Olympia during college, but he did not like the way it operated: he had to get in line, get give identification and proof of need and accept a box of what they decided he should have (Long). He thought it was regimented and made people feel bad about being there. The reason he wanted to work at Urban Gleaners is that it does not work the same way as a food bank (Long). Urban Gleaners just makes food available at certain places during certain time to whoever wants to come and get it. “What we do is self contained. We take food straight to people,” explained Mike. “Part of the nature of poverty, and some people who aren’t in poverty, is that they want to take more than they actually need. Living in poverty, food isn’t easy to come by, so when they have opportunity to access it they might take more than they need,” he said. He likes working in a system that trusts people. (Long) I could see how being able to get food without having to explain why one needs it would be less embarrassing for Gleaners’ clients, and how being allowed to pick what food one wanted was a way of maintaining dignity.
We pulled off Northeast Rosa Parks Way towards a tan and red stucco building at one end of a park with a playground and rose garden. Mike told me this weekly drop off was one of his favorites. “I know the people who run it well. They’re always very excited. They are very positive,” he said (Long). As if on cue, an energetic African American man with neatly combed graying hair, glasses and wearing an “I Portland” shirt was there waiting for us with a smile. “Curtis, this is Teddy,” said Mike, as we climbed down out of the van. “Teddy, Curtis Mayes runs the operation here.” Curtis gave me a quick but friendly wave and went right to business, explaining there were already people waiting and we needed to get set up. We carried the boxes through a door with a sign that said “Urban Gleaners Day”, down a hallway and into an old gym. About thirty people, a mix of men and women, all races, from twenty to about eighty years old, sat quietly on benches on one side, waiting with metal carts and bags. I was surprised that none of the people looked like the homeless people I see on the sidewalks or at Clay Street Table, where I serve breakfasts on Saturday mornings. They were not bedraggled and they did not look unhappy. Instead, they were like anyone you would see anywhere, at the mall, the airport or in a restaurant. I asked a woman who was waiting if it was her first time there. Her name was Felicia Parker, and she said no, she had been going to different Urban Gleaners pantries for nine years. She is 44 years old, African American, and provides food for herself and her three kids, her mother and one grandchild (Parker). She is a medical assistant and her kids all work, but food is really expensive now, so being able to get about 85 percent of the food she needs through food pantries like Urban Gleaners is a big help (Parker).
Curtis, Mike and I laid the food out on the twelve empty folding tables set up on the basketball court. One table was for vegetables, with asparagus, lettuce and artichokes, and the other tables were a mix of foods like sandwiches and pizza dough. It was the same kind of stuff my family gets from stores like New Seasons and Fred Meyer. Curtis told me he and his wife Deborah started running the pantry four years ago (Mayes). They were at the community center with their granddaughter and saw that Urban Gleaners was giving kids free lunches and they asked if they could help (Mayes). Curtis recalled, “They said we could set it up anywhere we wanted. We would be fully responsible. We run it. We don’t have to report to anyone. The buck stops with us. That drew my interest” (Mayes). When he started there was just one table out on the sidewalk with fifty pounds of food every week (Mayes). Curtis told Urban Gleaners to bring as much food as it could, and the pantry went from one table to three tables to now having twelve tables and an average of 600 pounds of food every week. Word spread around. When Curtis noticed seniors on wheelchairs were not getting to the food fast enough, because they had to read labels due to medication restrictions, they set aside a few tables just for seniors (Mayes).
When the food is all laid out, Curtis speaks to the people waiting on the benches. He explains Urban Gleaners’ mission and advises them to eat the food right away so that it does not go bad. When Curtis finishes, everyone races over to the tables and quickly but politely picks what they want. The food is always gone in ten minutes, according to Curtis.
Urban Gleaners was started in 2006 by a Portland woman named Tracy Oseran, who was driving down Burnside one day and heard a story on National Public Radio about a woman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, taking food that would have been thrown out and getting it to people in her neighborhood who were hungry (“Our Hunger Crisis” 2:42-3:12 ). Tracy and her two teenage children started asking stores and restaurants in Portland if they could take food that was headed for the dumpster and give it to schools where children did not have enough to eat (“Our Hunger Crisis” 3:25-3:62). The practice of “gleaning” gets its name from a biblical term that means collecting food for the poor bit by bit (“Our Hunger Crisis” 4:0-4:13). In the Bible, Leviticus 19:10 states: “Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien after the harvest to collect the leftovers” (Boelte 28). Gleaning has been practiced for more than 2,000 years — in a variety of ancient cultures, it was standard practice for the poor to be allowed onto a farmer’s land (Boelte 28).
To get more information about Urban Gleaners’ history, I interviewed Kerri Cacciata, the program director at Urban Gleaners, in her small office attached to the main warehouse. Kerri has light reddish hair, light white skin, wears glasses, and gets wrinkles in the middle of her forehead when she speaks. She grew up in Fullerton, California where her parents owned restaurants, so she was used to working around food. Kerri was a chef for twelve years, some of that time at The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, California. Kerri told me Urban Gleaners currently has over 100 regularly scheduled food donors, including grocery stores, corporate cafeterias, catering companies, farmer’s markets and restaurant supply companies (Cacciata). The top five donors are Zupan’s, New Seasons (including twelve individual stores and the central kitchen, where the food that goes to its delis is cooked), multiple corporate cafeterias on the campuses of Nike and Intel (each company has at least five cafeterias), the Portland Airport (which includes restaurants like Elephants, Kenny & Zukes, Starbucks and Blue Star Donuts), and Sysco, a restaurant supply company that donates food in large quantities (Cacciata). Urban Gleaners does not get food from national chain stores like Walmart, Fred Meyer and Safeway, because they are part of a network called Feeding America, which donates to the bigger food distribution places like the Oregon Food Bank. Kerri said she would like to see that changed, ideally, because there is a huge amount of food that could be coming in from those stores and Urban Gleaners has a list of more places that need food (Cacciata). “Being able to pick up even one or two of those large scale locations would be a huge resource for us,” she told me (Cacciata). If they did get more food, Urban Gleaners would have to figure out a way to increase its storage capacity, because its warehouse is full every week now. Urban Gleaners rescued over a million pounds of food last year and has ten different grants to fund its operations, which include 13 people on staff, four vans and the purchase of containers and supplies (Cacciata). Over 150 people volunteer to help pick up and deliver food, learning about the organization by word of mouth, on Instagram or on a volunteer website called Hands On Portland (Cacciata).
I asked Kerri why she was drawn to a non-profit organization, since people make less money at non-profits in general, and she said she went to work at Urban Gleaners because she wanted something that got her out of the kitchen but still feeding people. “Being a chef is not as heart-driven or rewarding. This is being able to still feed people but in a much more thoughtful way. It is better aligned with where I am in my life,” Kerri told me (Cacciata). She says the staff at Urban Gleamers are a very empathic, passionate group of people whose values in life are altruistic. Some have a personal experience with hunger, so they feel driven to do this kind of work. “We are allowed to be emotional here, and you can’t do that with every career in the world,” she told me (Cacciata).
Urban Gleaners is just one of many different types of organizations that address the enormous issue of hunger in the United States. There are 15 million U.S. households suffering from food insecurity, defined as when a person does not know where they will get their next meal (“Just the Facts”). Food insecurity fundamentally undermines physical and mental health: families who cannot afford the costs of healthy food experience depression at higher rates than families who can afford healthy food (Evans & Nagele 179). It particularly harms children, who additionally suffer greater rates of birth defects, developmental delays, and lower educational outcomes (Bauer 2018). A 2012 report called “It’s Dinnertime” found that food insecure families strive to cook healthily, but 55% say vegetables and fresh meat are too expensive (Oregon Food Bank 2016). A Harvard study found that a healthy diet costs $1.50 more a day than an unhealthy diet, which adds up to more than $2000 extra a year ($550 per person) and can have a serious impact on families (“Hunger Factors” 2016). Oregon has one the highest rates of food insecurity in the country, even though its economy keeps getting stronger and unemployment is down (Hauser & Ordonez 2019). Oregon has shown the sixth highest rate of growth among all states since 2001 with its economy expanding by about 75 percent (Hauser & Ordonez 2019). More than one in seven, or 14.6 percent, of Oregon households were food insecure during the three-year period of 2014-16, making it the 14th worst state in the country, and one of fifteen states where food insecurity is higher than the national average (Bauer 2018). Oregon ranked as the 12th highest in the country when it came to actual hunger, which is defined as people not getting enough to eat (Bauer 2018).
To find out why Oregon has such a high rate of food insecurity, I emailed Mark Edwards, a professor at the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University. I found Professor Edwards on the list of members of the Oregon Hunger Task Force, a group of legislators, state agency representatives and non-profit and community leaders who research, document and raise awareness of hunger issues, coordinate the provision of food across the state and makes recommendations for government action to alleviate hunger (Oregon Hunger Task Force). Professor Edwards responded that the root causes of food insecurity are hard to eliminate (Edwards). Rental burden (the fraction of people who spend more than half their income on rent) drives up food insecurity, and Oregon has a high percentage of its citizens whose incomes do not keep up with rent (Edwards). Places that experience high levels of seasonal unemployment (that rely on summer or winter tourism, but are dead the rest of the time) tend to be areas with large percentages of families who experience some food insecurity during the year, and Oregon has lots of areas that rely on seasonal work, according to Professor Edwards. He said that while food waste is a problem, he does not think it is a cause of food insecurity (Edwards).
To get another opinion, I emailed John Burt, Executive Director, Farmers Ending Hunger, an organization based in Salem that works with farmers and ranchers who donate a portion of their harvest to people who need food. John responded that he believes food waste is a contributing factor to food insecurity in Oregon because food waste results in a higher cost of food products (Burt). “When a portion of a product cannot be sold or has to be disposed of there is a cost associated with it. It also means that a significant portion of the food produced never gets to market and thus reduces the supply” (Burt). In other words, it is not a lack of food that is causing food insecurity, it is the waste that happens that stops the food from getting to people who need it.
There is no doubt that Americans waste food: they throw out an average of 72 billion pounds of safe, edible food every year, according to Feeding America, a network of over 200 food banks across the country (Anzilotti 2017). That’s billions of pounds of uneaten hamburgers, casseroles and key lime pie headed to the landfills. America throws out more than 1,250 calories per day per person, or more than 400 pounds of food per person annually: That’s a loss of up to $218 billion each year and 50 percent more food than Americans wasted in the 1970s (“Wasted” 3). In all, this wasted food represents nearly one-third of all food produced in the United States each year (Evans & Nagele 179). The majority of wasted food in the U.S. comes from restaurants, food stores and manufacturers. Within American homes, food waste often results from confusion regarding “use by” and “best by” date labeling, improper storage, and over-purchasing (Evans & Nagele 181). In addition, because stores only sell food that looks perfect, a lot of food that does not look perfect never even makes it to the shelves, according to John Burt of Farmers Ending Hunger (Burt). In their article entitled “A Lot To Digest: Advancing Food Waste Policy In The United States,” Alexandra I. Evans and Robert M. Nagele write, ”Hunger and food insecurity exist in the United States not because our nation lacks an adequate food supply but because systemic inefficiencies—such as those that contribute to the nation’s large volume of food waste—obstruct hungry Americans’ access to wholesome food. It has been estimated that thirty percent of all the food lost in the United States could be redistributed to supply every food insecure Americans total diet”(Evans & Nagele 183). Food waste also hurts the environment because food in landfills release methane, a major contributor to global warming. Moreover, food waste reduces the availability of natural resources, such as fresh water and arable land, that could have been used for other uses (“Food For All”).
One reason there is so much food waste is that people and businesses do not have to pay any penalty for the environmental and social negative impacts. Interestingly, The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have tried to address the food waste problem. In 2015, they announced the first-ever national food loss and waste goal: A fifty percent reduction in food loss and waste by 2030. They argued for five food recovery actions: source reduction; feeding hungry people; feeding animals; industrial uses; and composting. The EPA also initiated the Food Recovery Challenge. Both were ineffective because it was just an invitation and there was a narrow scope, according to the authors of the article “A Lot To Digest: Advancing Food Waste Policy In the United States” (Evans & Nagele 184). The U.S. Congress has enacted several laws that encourage restaurants and retailers to donate excess food to hungry people instead of throwing it away. But a major factor preventing significant donations of food is the fear of liability, and many restaurants and supermarkets cite that fear as the primary reason for declining to donate leftover edible food to non-profit organizations. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (called GSA), signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, seeks to encourage food donation by exempting from liability those who donate “apparently wholesome food and grocery items in good faith to non-profit organizations, thus removing a major obstacle for individuals and businesses that wish to feed hungry people with excess food” (Evans & Nagele 184). But according to “A Lot To Digest: Advancing Food Waste Policy In the United States,” the GSA is ineffective for three main reasons: first, because many businesses still think there is liability attached to participation; second, there is no financial incentives or physical assistance for organizations that wish to donate food; and third, the rules require that businesses to donate their food to third-party charitable organizations and not directly to the hungry (Evans & Nagele 185). Tax deductions for donated food is also a strategy. Under Internal Revenue Code 170(e)(3), qualified business taxpayers that have made food donations can deduct “the cost to produce the food and half the difference between the cost and full fair market value of the donated food” from taxable income when calculating income tax liability (Evans & Nagele 186). The PATH Act, enacted in 2015, further expands financial incentives for food donations: it extends tax incentives and increases the cap on allowable charitable contributions for food donations from ten percent to fifteen percent (Evans & Nagele 187).
Despite the tax and regulatory complications, organizations that save food from waste and give it to people who are hungry are starting up all over the country. Oregon has dozens of gleaning organizations, including groups that pick fruit off trees in the yards of private houses in Portland and a program called the Linn-Benton Food Share in Corvallis, which gets food from farms, and where Professor Edwards has volunteered. “It’s pretty impressive how they can take a thousand pounds of frozen carrots from a producer and package them in smaller quantities to distribute in food boxes,” he wrote to me (Edwards). Oregon has a Crop Donation Tax Credit to incentivize farmers to glean their fields and donate the gleaned crops by providing a tax credit for fifteen percent of the donated food’s fair market value (Evans & Nagele 193). Kerri from Urban Gleaners told me in our interview that the goal is not just to feed hungry people: there’s also the component of trying to get food out of the waste stream (Cacciata). She said “You can’t separate one without the other” (Cacciata). Urban Gleaners explains to donors that there has never been a lawsuit against donated food (Cacciata). No one has ever sued Urban Gleaners regarding donated food. “I don’t think it’s on people’s radars, if they’re hungry and in need of food, it’s not in their mind to think can I get money out of this company if I eat that food. Maybe it’s hoping for the better nature of people,” Kerri said in our interview (Cacciata). She noted there are different reasons why stores and restaurants have so much excess food, but mostly it is either not sellable or it is overproduced. Maybe it was a catering company that thought more people were going to come, so they made 100 pounds, but only 50 sold — or maybe it was January and there were lots of leftover candy canes after Christmas (Cacciata). Gleaning is not alone in its quest to end waste and hunger. I read about a program at Reed College that has been going on for over 50 years, where students leave any food they have not eaten on their plates on their way to dish return in the cafeteria on a table called “The Scrounge” (Gomez 1). There are now companies that sell “Imperfect Produce” — produce that would not be sold by stores because it is too ugly (2018 U.S. Food Waste Investment Report). A new app called MealConnect lets restaurants and stores notify food banks and other donation groups when they have food ready for pickup — it has moved over 333 million pounds of food, enough for 278 million meals, so far (Anzilotti).
A few days after I went with Mike to Peninsula Park, I visited another Urban Gleaners pantry — the Charles Jordan Community Center in North Portland. Again, I was apprehensive. North Portland is not somewhere I go regularly and I was not sure what to expect. The building, with a circular driveway in front and a park next door, is in a tranquil neighborhood with pretty houses and trees. Women walked by carrying yoga mats and kids played basketball. The people waiting around outside in the sun on the community center’s steps were almost all women, appeared to be between thirty and eighty years old, and were a mix of races. After a man at the front desk inside handed everyone a number written in black sharpie on a torn piece of green paper, we moved down a clean, brightly lit hallway with brick walls in front of a door with a glass window that revealed tables with food. This room was much smaller than the gym at Peninsula Park, and people were only allowed in two at a time, but you can spend as much time as you want in there, a woman informed me with a warm smile.
The dual dilemma of food waste and food insecurity taps into a deeper issue: inequality. On a personal level, it does not make sense that I get to eat at a nice restaurant while a kid in the same city does not have anything for dinner. People in Portland are sleeping in tents on the street while others live in comfortable houses. Multiply this on a state, national and global level, and the issue of inequality can be overwhelming. Just as with climate change, it is easy to react to such a massive threat by avoiding thinking about it. It is easy to justify inaction by arguing that what one individual does cannot make a difference. But in her TEDxPortland talk on YouTube, Urban Gleaners founder Tracy Oseran says, “while we are living in this food-centric wonderland, with acres of lush farmland, abundant farmer’s markets, the pinot noir capital of the world, there are thousands of children who are going hungry.” (“Our Hunger Crisis” 1:05-1:22) And while Oseran admits that gleaning alone will not solve the hunger problem, she nevertheless asserts that everyone must act to make a difference. (“Our Hunger Crisis” 1:25-1:27) What I saw while reporting on this project at Urban Gleaners is that small actions do add up — what a single person does to reduce hunger can make a difference. Oseran started a food rescue operation and found schools and communities where people do not have enough to eat. Her colleague Kerri spends all day making sure extra food is saved, picked up and delivered. Mike does the physical labor of moving food from stores, restaurants and cafeterias to pantries. Curtis helps people in the community get access to food that’s been saved. And because of them, thousands of people in Portland can worry less about going hungry. We are on the right track towards reducing food waste and food insecurity. We just have to keep going.
Anzilotti, Ellie. “This App Will Help Restaurants Donate The Insane Amount Of Food They Usually Waste.” Fast Company. June 13, 2017. https://www.fastcompany.com/40430509/this-app-will-help-restaurants-donate-the-insane-amount-of-food-they-usually-waste
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