Editor’s note: In keeping with the Urban Gleaners policy of not requiring food recipients to give their full names or other identifying details, OPB only asked for the first names of people who spoke about their experiences at the free food market we attended.
It’s a sunny afternoon in Portland’s Lents Park, and a group of people are gathered near the playground and community garden. Some are sitting on the grass, others are in groups chatting and folks like Cinnamon are lined up, waiting to shop.
“I actually live like 20 minutes away, but I figured, my car is like a small really tiny hatchback [and] gets decent gas mileage,” she says. “And what you get is way more than what you would do in gas.”
There’s a variety of foods displayed on the three long tables: from grapes to garlic bread, organic milk to collard greens. Another shopper, Steven, is excited to talk through his market haul: “Today I got some amazing looking hamburger buns; they’ve got seeds and stuff all over them. Some grapes, a melon, a gigantic cauliflower, cinnamon rolls, pizza …”
This is an Urban Gleaners Free Food Market, which is set up much like your traditional farmers market. But each table has food that would otherwise be thrown away.
“It’s all the stuff from grocery stores that they don’t want,” Steven says.
But it’s not just food from grocery stores. It’s also produce from local farms and prepared food from catering companies, restaurants, universities and larger organizations like Adidas or the Moda Center. That food would have gone to waste if not picked up by Urban Gleaners.
“This year, and for the last few years, we collect 1.2 million pounds of food every year,” says Tracy Oseran, the founder of Urban Gleaners.
In 2006, Oseran was driving down Burnside Street and heard a story from NPR about food waste in Massachusetts. And it prompted her to start questioning food in her own community: Who has access to it, who doesn’t and what do we do with the massive amount of surplus that’s going to waste?
“If an apple has a small blemish, it gets thrown away,” she says. “Which is so sad because 40% of the food that is produced in this country is thrown away, which is just a staggering number.”
Oseran realized hunger was not solely an issue of supply, but also one of distribution, so she went looking for a local organization that redistributed food in hopes that she could volunteer — but there wasn’t one. So she decided to create her own: Urban Gleaners.
She started small, first asking local restaurants what they were doing with the unsold food at the end of the night and if they would be willing to donate it.
“Some people said I was crazy, but some people said they would do it,” she says.
The first restaurant on-board was Portland’s iconic Bluehour, a nationally acclaimed eatery in the Pearl District. Oseran said the first donation was small, just a few containers that included a fava bean purée and a mushroom duxelles.
Initially, she took the donations to Blanchet House, a Portland nonprofit that serves free, hot meals at its downtown Founders Cafe. The small donations were incorporated into staff meals, which Oseran says gave her more time to speak with more Portland establishments and get more food.
Nearly two decades later, Urban Gleaners is collecting over 80,000 pounds of food every month, much of it redistributed at their dozens of free food markets. At the start, the nonprofit worked mainly with already established organizations like Blanchet House and Rose Haven Women’s Shelter, but after seeing the need for food in schools, they started to grow.
“I was introduced to a woman who was the principal of North Powellhurst School, Kate Barker, and she had 216 kindergarten kids [and] said, ‘I have all of these kids and they don’t have enough food at home,’” Oseran recalls.
Urban Gleaners started to gather food that could be sent home with kids in their backpacks. And it wasn’t long before principals from other schools were looking to get supplemental food for their students too.
Oseran says, “Kate started getting calls from other principals saying ‘We hear you get food! Where do you get food?’ So they call [Urban Gleaners] and say ‘We want food, we want what Kate gets.’”
Urban Gleaners still has regular markets at schools around the metro area, but their Free Food Markets are also now at low income housing complexes, community centers and in neighborhood parks.
“We go all over Portland and set up what looks sort of like a farmers market,” she says. “People shop for what they want — we don’t do boxes. We think that people should be able to pick the kind of food they want to eat.”
There is also another big difference between the Free Food Markets and a traditional food bank.
“We don’t ask for any personal information for anyone who comes,” says Oseran. “So anybody who is interested, needs or wants food is welcome at our sites and we don’t care where you live, how many people are in your house, or what your personal information is.”
It’s part of a push to get rid of the stigma that often surrounds accessing supplemental food services like Urban Gleaners. That’s a sentiment echoed by volunteer Carey Booth, who says people are often hesitant and wonder if they “deserve” the help.
“I encourage people to come and check it out and see what you think,” she says. “Maybe it’s just once a month that you’re right at the end of the paycheck and you could use just a little bit.” And Booth was quick to remind us this food would otherwise be going to waste.
“I used to pick up from Sellwood New Seasons and they always weigh it,” she says. “Four hundred pounds in my little tiny electric car of bread, dairy, produce [and] now I’m picking up pizza slices from Straight from New York on Belmont.”
That element of reducing food waste is also important to a lot of the folks shopping at the market, like Dave, who says he is a retired produce manager who used to salvage thrown away vegetables.
“Well, I used to go through [the dumpster] and pick all the goodies out of there and some nice lady gave me a dollar and I go ‘Ma’am, no, I have a job.’ I just can’t see good food going to waste.”
Dave says that, while he qualifies for supplemental nutrition assistance, he chooses not to use that benefit.
“I’m a big believer in not throwing it away in a landfill, throwing food away, to me, is a sin,” he says. “So I didn’t sign up for SNAP and [instead] I go to food banks, because it’s just the right thing to do.”