Posted on August 10, 2011 - by

Urban Gleaners: Challenging a System of Waste and Want

Photo courtesy of Urban Gleaners

Thirty-four million tons of food. That’s how much rots in landfills each year in the U.S. Meanwhile, 14.7 percent of households were food insecure last year, and one in six Americans relies on food stamps to get by. Why is such an astounding amount of food wasted when there are millions who need it?

“A lot of it has to do with poor distribution,” says Emily Kanter, the Development and Communications Coordinator for Urban Gleaners, a non-profit in Portland, OR. “It baffles me that people go hungry in America.”

Though Portland has been lauded as an epicurean mecca for local and seasonal produce, the truth is that Oregon ranks among the five hungriest states in the nation. To combat this, Urban Gleaners is trying to restore some balance to a food system that leaves some Americans bloated, and others starving. With the help of forty volunteers and a part-time driver, Urban Gleaners collects more than 45,000 pounds of food each month from high-end restaurants and grocery stores throughout the city. The food, which would otherwise be thrown away, is sorted and then distributed to local agencies that feed the hungry.

“It’s a pretty astounding amount of food to waste,” says Kanter. “I picked up around 400 pounds of zucchini and squash last week from a farmers market. We also pick up hundreds of pounds of bread and bananas– we never seem to run out of either bread or bananas.”

It was an excess of bread that prompted the organization’s expansion last year to include a Food To Schools program. Founder Tracy Oseran was trying to figure out what to do with a surplus of whole-grain loaves when she learned that hunger was a serious issue for students in some of Portland’s elementary schools. Food to Schools now delivers nutritious foods to six elementary schools in Portland’s David Douglas district, where 75 to 90 percent of children live below the poverty line, and many rely on subsidized school meals—which, Kanter notes, are constructed on nutritional guidelines that consider Corn Nuts a vegetable. Kate Barker, the principal of Cherry Park Elementary School, says that so far “Urban Gleaners has provided for hundreds of families. Some of these children come from homes where there is nothing in the cupboard.”

A primary goal for Urban Gleaners is to bring as much fresh produce as possible to food insecure households. Kanter says that the lack of support for specialized crops combined with massive subsidies for corn products makes it nearly impossible for low-income families to access fresh foods, particularly vegetables. The double burden of food insecurity and obesity is one outcome of that imbalance. Kanter thinks that healthy foods could be more accessible if there were a better system in place for redistributing unused food, and if food stamps were worth more when used to purchase produce.

Urban Gleaners acknowledges that redistribution does not directly alleviate the socioeconomic inequalities that create barriers to adequate nutrition. But, she says, “there are families that are starving right now, and food that can be made available to them. Ideally, there wouldn’t be any wasted food, but while there is we should do something about it. We want to draw attention to how much gets wasted.”

Local food insecurity is also part of larger compounding systems of poverty and unemployment. “It’s hard to look for work when you’re hungry. It’s hard to focus in school when you’re hungry,” says Kanter. So while working with lawmakers like Senator Ron Wyden to encourage long-term systemic change, Urban Gleaners focuses on making an immediate local impact. The organization also tries to provide opportunities within the community of recipients, for example by hiring a former resident of a participating shelter as a driver.

By creating a network of donors, volunteers, and receiving partners, Urban Gleaners works to promote resourcefulness and cooperation in the city. Kanter says that the most important part of signing up new donors is taking the time to build relationships and establish common ground. Accordingly, Urban Gleaners has typically has more success working with small, independent restaurants and grocers rather than large chains, simply because it’s more difficult to coordinate with a bureaucratic network.

The benefit of a model like Urban Gleaners, says Kanter, “is that it’s not impossible to do anywhere, if you take the time to make the connections.” Older food rescue organizations like New York’s City Harvest and Boston’s Food For Free have developed extensive networks, and there are signs that greater attention to distribution issues may be the next step for local food movements.

Although Kanter thinks that metropolitan areas are ideal contexts for forming establishing networks, she sees potential for rural communities to form effective partnerships with farmers and smaller producers of specialty crops. She notes that Oseran started Urban Gleaners with her two teenagers, one restaurant, and one agency;  “If you have a car and some bags or bins, you can do what we do.”



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  1. Visit My Website

    August 11, 2011


    Joan French said:

    A very good article – and a great concept. Having taught Health a little bit at a school, I saw first hand how many kids didn’t have breakfast or good lunches.
    Am interested in seeing what can be done in my part of country (Northern CO).

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    August 23, 2011


    Michael Kuehnert said:

    Urban farms are a great answer, we just need the support of politicians. The South Central Farm was a great example of what urban farming can do. Check out the story in the doc SAVE THE FARM. Featuring Daryl Hannah, Julia Butterfly Hill, Alicia Silverstone, Amy Smart.