On a recent Wednesday, Clackamas Service Center is a hive of activity.
The nonprofit, near Southeast 82nd and Johnson Creek Boulevard, provides a range of services to community members ranging from clothes to medical care. But today, the focus is on food.
At reception, people line up to order food boxes. In the pantry below, volunteers hurry to pack those boxes. In the dining room, people wander in and out, some with heavy backpacks, others with dogs.
In the kitchen, volunteers are planning the evening meal. Two enormous trays of fried rice, left over from an event, have just been delivered. It will go well with the chicken sausage and sauerkraut that are also on hand, says volunteer chef LeeAnn Hopkins. And for dessert, it’s a whopping chocolate cake from Costco. “That thing weighs eight pounds,” says Hopkins. “Best chocolate cake ever. And I’m an expert.”
The rice, the sausages, the cake and a lot of the produce in those food boxes could have ended up in a landfill. Instead, they were picked up and brought here to get into the hands – and bellies – of those who need a meal. The center serves 4,000 meals and provides food boxes to an additional 600 families each month. Much of it happens through a process called food rescue or food recovery.
According to the Oregon Food Bank, one in five Oregonians lacks reliable access to nutritious food. At the same time, food, much of which could still be consumed, accounts for nearly a fifth of all garbage in the greater Portland region.
“No one wants to throw away edible food,” says Will Elder, business waste reduction planner at Metro.
And, says Elder, wasting food that could be eaten is just part of the problem. Most Portland-area garbage goes to landfills, where the food decomposes, creating methane gas and contributing to climate change. It’s a key reason Metro is looking at looking at ways to keep more food out of the trash.
“Two goals” – feeding people in need and protecting the environment – Elder says, “align in one solution: Food rescue.”
Over the years, Metro has funded grants and tools to support more food rescue. A recently convened stakeholder group is now looking at ways to support and expand food rescue.
Food agencies fill gaps in distribution
Urban Gleaners, a small Portland-based non-profit, collects food from grocery stores, restaurants and other food businesses and redistributes it to places like schools and apartment complexes. Their operation is based on the view that hunger isn’t the result of scarce resources, but of inefficient distribution. The food they deliver – averaging about 350 pounds per stop – is set out on tables so people can choose what they need.
Director of operations Diana Foss says their smaller operation size allows them to be nimble: “If I get word at night that there’s food available for pickup,” Foss says, “I send out a group text to my rapid response team.” A volunteer will pick it up and bring it to their Southeast Portland warehouse to store and repack.
Space, time, other concerns keep some from donating
But, Foss says, it can be hard to persuade businesses to donate food. Some worry about being sued, even though "good faith" donation is protected by Good Samaritan laws.
In addition, donating food takes money, space and time, all things busy kitchens tend to be short on. “We have found it works best when we’re partnering with businesses that have a top-down commitment to preventing food waste,” says Foss, mentioning New Seasons Market, Bon Appetit Catering and Hopworks.
Providence Hospital in Milwaukie has also made food donation work through this kind of top-down commitment. Their food waste prevention program includes composting food scraps and donating prepared food to Esther’s Pantry and St. John The Baptist Catholic Church in Milwaukie.
“There’s so much wasted food and so much need that we could be 10 times bigger than we are,” Foss says, “and still not big enough.”
Prepared food is highly prized and hard to come by
Linda Eld, co-manager of the Rock Creek Pantry, can empathize with that. “We get 15 or 20 new clients a week and in December a big food bank near here is closing,” says Eld. In 2015, a million pounds of food came through Rock Creek and 2016 will easily top that. “We’re almost overwhelmed.”
The pantry, located in unincorporated Washington County and associated with Rock Creek Church, gets food from the Oregon Food Bank as well as donations from businesses. They have their own truck, a loading dock, storage space, and a walk-in cooler and freezer. Families and retirees with limited income, and people with disabilities come every two weeks for meat, dairy products, fresh produce and non-perishable foods such as canned beans.
Fully cooked meals donated by local schools are also a part of the donation mix. “Families love them,” Eld says. “All they need to do is heat it up. There are so many reasons that people may not be able to cook from scratch.” She says Rock Creek could distribute more prepared foods if they could get them.
Clackamas Service Center executive director Debra Mason agrees. “We can definitely use more prepared food in the meals.”
But whatever form it takes, Mason explains, food gets people in the door. People come in for their meals and stay for a shower, learn about housing resources, get a haircut, or see the doctor.
Joyce Rollins, packing food boxes in the basement, started volunteering fifteen years ago when she retired. “People come down to get their boxes and get a smile on their face. I like helping them out.”
While most of the food these agencies take gets distributed, there are small portions that don’t, often because the food was too past its prime when it got to them. At Urban Gleaners, unusable food is picked up by a pig farmer. Clackamas Service Center sends it to feed both pigs and goats. And at Rock Creek Pantry, “it goes to a lady who has lots and lots of chickens.”
“None of it,” says Linda Eld, “goes into the garbage can.”