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Urban Gleaners: Stopping food waste and feeding the hungry in the land of plenty

Tracy Oseran sorts fresh food for delivery to East Portland schools at the Urban Gleaners food warehouse in Southeast Portland. (Stuart Tomlinson/KATU)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KATU) -- A radio broadcast on National Public Radio a decade ago started Tracy Oseran on a mission to stop food waste and feed the hungry.

Ten years later, Urban Gleaners, the group she founded, delivers 60,000 pounds of food each month to those who need i -- much of it to 23 Portland schools.

“Ten, 11 years ago people weren’t really on the food-recovery bandwagon. It was very new and people thought we were a little crazy,” Oseran said from the Gleaners Southeast Portland headquarters.

Each week a cadre of 40 volunteers heads out to Zupans, Whole Foods, New Seasons, Dave’s Killer Bread as well as Lewis & Clark College, Reed College and numerous other cafeterias, business and civic groups to collect food that would otherwise be composted or thrown away.

Oseran said good Samaritan laws make it easier for businesses to donate food. Anyone donating food in good faith is protected from liability.

Interrupting that stream of what the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates at 133 billion pounds worth $161 billion is tossed away, most of it still edible.

“In the United States, especially, we are very consumed with how things look and there’s a lot of food out there that may not look perfect but is perfectly edible,” Oseran said. “When we think of Portland we get all the write-ups that we’re the cool new food city and the wine country and all of that. But we have thousands of people here who are going hungry and many of them are children.”

The group delivers anywhere from 500 to 700 pounds of food to those 23 schools in East Portland and East County. Oseran said the schools run the pantries, allowing families to choose what they need to take home.

“We don’t put together food boxes because it seems to me we’re better off having people choose what’s appealing to them rather than getting a box and throwing some of it away because they don’t know what to do with it,” Oseran explained.

In addition to gathering food from retailers, food is also donated by nine farmer’s markets and organic farms. Food that is not fit for human consumption is given to three pig farmers to feed their hogs.

“This is something that from our perspective does not appear to be going away," Oseran said about food waste and people going hungry. “We get calls every week people asking for food. “We hear that you do this, can we get food?’”

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