21 March 2012

Urban Gleaners: Reducing Waste and Want

Photos and story by Emily Kanter, Development & Communications Coordinator, Urban Gleaners

Urban Gleaners volunteers pick up from five markets. Some even do it by bike!

Thousands look forward to Opening Day of the Portland Farmers Market at PSU. For Urban Gleaners, it means a new season of donations of delicious, fresh, organic produce that we deliver directly from the markets to the families in our Food to Schools Program.

It’s no secret that Oregon ranks high on the list of hungriest states in America.  Last year, the Oregon Food Bank distributed more than one million emergency food boxes. 33% of those receiving emergency food were children.  In 2010, Urban Gleaners became aware of issues of hunger in Portland’s East Multnomah County School District, where between 70-90% of children live below the poverty line and rely on free or subsidized school breakfasts and lunches for what is often their only meal of the day.  “Some of these children come from homes where there is nothing in the cupboard,” says Kate Barker, Principal of Cherry Park Elementary School.

In response to this tremendous need Urban Gleaners began our Food to Schools Program, bringing large weekly deliveries of donated food to three elementary schools in East Multnomah County.  The food is sorted onto tables or into boxes and taken home by families of students at each school.  The program has since grown to include seven schools throughout Portland Metro area and includes summertime “Free Farmers Markets.”

We receive sizeable donations of artisanal breads, dairy products and other non-perishable foods from grocery stores, restaurants and event sites, but the produce from vendors at PFM is the most essential component of the Food to Schools Program.  Fresh produce is often an expensive purchase at the grocery store and one that families living on food stamps can ill afford.  The benefits of this program are two-fold: by redistributing the surplus from five Portland Farmers Markets to our seven schools, Urban Gleaners can save farmers the time and effort of transporting their surplus back to the farm to compost, while at the same time providing hundreds of families with access to incredibly nutritious fresh foods.

Bags of gorgeous chard and lettuces at one of the partner schools.

On a particularly bountiful market day last summer, we picked up more than ten full bags of organic produce including swiss chard, kale, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, several different kinds of lettuce and some tantalizing cartons of ripe blackberries. The tables were filled with bags of whole-grain breads, yogurts, cheeses, boxes of crackers and cookies, bananas and all of the generous donations from the farmers at PFM.  By 11:30am over 75 people had lined up—parents and grandparents with boisterous children in tow.  Within minutes, the blackberries had been snatched up—by 12pm all of the fresh produce was gone.

Many of the vegetables have inspired conversations with families in the program. “What is this frilly thing?” was a common question asked by mothers staring over bags full of escarole and, “What can I do with it?”. Urban Gleaners created recipe cards in English, Spanish and Russian with easily found ingredients highlighting many of the common vegetables gleaned from the Portland Farmers Markets.  Bursting with color and flavor there is certainly no lack of enthusiasm for this local bounty.  By providing these families with access and education we can ensure that fresh, nutritious produce can be enjoyed by all.

Urban Gleaners is a small, volunteer organization that picks up edible, surplus food from farmers markets, restaurants, grocery stores and event sites and delivers it to local agencies that feed the hungry. Hunger is less a problem of scarce resources but inefficient distribution. The concept of picking up and redistributing food is a simple yet powerful weapon in the fight against hunger. For more information and to learn how you can become a volunteer, please visit http://www.urbangleaners.org.