Urban Gleaners Interview
Non-Profit Saves Discarded Food For the Needy
Emily Kanter, the Development and Communications Coordinator for the non-profit Urban Gleaners would gladly eat any of the food that her company saves from the landfills. “All of the food we donate is perfectly edible, it's food that I would eat in a heartbeat, and a lot of i 2000 t's gourmet,” she tells me. “We're really just trying to save this food from going to the landfill where it creates methane gas. Instead we give it to people who need it.” Urban Gleaners takes in around 45,000 pounds of food a month in donations from businesses that would otherwise throw it away. “Unfortunately there's tremendous need in Oregon, which is the fifth hungriest state in the nation,” Kanter tells me with a sigh. “It's sad, but we're doing what we can to help.”
Tracy Oseran, now the organization’s Executive Director, started Urban Gleaners in 2006. Kanter tells us that Oseran “listened to a program on NPR about a nonprofit in Cambridge, MA called Food for Free, and she was really inspired by the story of this organization, which does what Urban Gleaners does now. Tracy was thinking, 'Wow, someone must be doing this here and I want to help out,' but she looked around and found that nobody was.”
In true humanitarian fashion, Oseran decided to do it herself. “Tracy corralled her two teenage kids to help her and they went to restaurants around Portland for any food donations, any food that the restaurant had made too much of that they would otherwise throw away but was in perfectly good edible condition,” Kanter reveals. “A few restaurants jumped on board, Bluehour was one in particular, and Tracy spoke with the guys at Blanchet House, which is the agency next door, and they were receptive to the idea. She brought the food over and thus began a partnership that's lasted for the past five years.”
Blanchet House is still next door to Urban Gleaner's Old Town office, and on the grey, drizzly day at the end of August that we spoke to Kanter, a long line of people waited for lunch to be served. These people were hungry, homeless, or both, huddling in over-sized sweatshirts, or, unprepared for the unseasonable weather, in shorts and tee shirts. This lunch probably included something Urban Gleaners had saved from the landfill.
The food Urban Gleaners donates comes from restaurants, grocery stores (“New Seasons and Zupan's are huge,” Kanter says), bakeries, farmers markets, two farms (Sauvie Island Organics and Zenger Farm), hotels, bars, and more. A complete list can be found on Urban Gleaners' website. Urban Gleaners always picks up the food; no one has to bring it to the organization. Currently it's working to get donations from corporate grocery stores, “but it's a little harder to connect to the right person at a business that has multiple levels,” says Kanter. “You have to go to Texas, for example, to reach the headquarters.”
When asked what kind of foods the organization receives, she replies, “Bread is huge, bananas also. There's too much bread and too many bananas in the world, apparently. We also get a fair amount of dairy products. In the summertime we get a ton of fresh produce, which is fantastic. The bread and bananas are pretty consistent throughout the year though.” The most unusual thing the organization has received, she says, was almosy 200 pounds of salmon chowder from a sporting event. “We prepackaged it into ziplock bags. It was delicious, but unexpected.”
Urban Gleaners gives food to ten organizations, like Blanchet House, that help the needy. It also started feeding people directly with its Food-to-Schools Program, launched in 2010. “We were getting excess of delicious whole-grain bread from Dave's Killer Bread,” Kanter tells me. “Tracy was trying to figure out what to do with it. Someone at her temple said she had a daughter in the David Douglas school district where 70-90 percent of the kids were below the poverty line. Sometimes those kids relied on free or subsidized school lunches for their only meal of the day. For a lot of families it's a real issue to be able to provide food for their children.” This prompted Oseran into action. “Tracy partnered first with this one school called West Powelhurst and through that we reached out to two other schools. We've been delivering food on a weekly basis to those schools ever since.”
The schools don't get just any donated food, either. “We try to deliver as much fresh whole grain breads, produce and dairy products as we can,” Kanter says proudly. “We try to select the best items to give to those schools, especially the fresh produce.” Urban Gleaners doesn't let the kids go hungry in summer when school's out, either. “In the summer time we also do a free farmer's market with the schools, where families can line up and pick out the food they want. There, they have a tremendous amount of produce like fresh kale and collard greens and chard that's all donated by Portland Farmers Markets.”
One of Urban Gleaners' most touching stories comes from its Food-to-Schools Program. “Tracy described to us arriving at one of the schools to oversee the donation process, to make sure it was functioning well,” Kanter explains with obvious emotion in her voice. “As she walked into the Principal's office, there was a young student there who was crying because it was his birthday and traditionally they all bring cookies in for their birthday, but his family couldn't afford to make or purchase cookies for him to bring in. Luckily, there was a box of beautiful pastries in the donation Tracy had brought, so the principal took the pastries and said 'Hey, the Cupcake Fairy has arrived!' Those little moments make it all worthwhile.”
You can make more worthwhile moments happen, and get food to more people in need, by helping Urban Gleaners. One way is to make a donation. “A small financial donation really goes a long way for us,” says Kanter. Volunteers do a lot of its work, and its Executive Director works pro bono, both of which help the organization operate on a small budget. Thus, a small amount of money can help buy the gas to deliver the food.
You can also help by buying Tracy's Small-Batch Granola, which Oseran makes (they purchase the ingredients; they're not from the food donations). It can be bought at New Seasons, Zupan's and other places around town, and the profits from it all go to Urban Gleaners.
Kanter says the organization is always looking for more volunteers as well. More information about volunteering can be found on Urban Gleaners website. Lastly, getting the word out about this organization helps a lot. Talk to any food donors you think might be interested, the non-profit could always use more sources of food, especially restaurants. If you know a restaurant owner, farmer, baker, executive in a corporate grocery chain, or anyone else who has extra food that would otherwise go to the landfill, let Urban Gleaners know, so they can pick it up and keep helping those who need it most.