It’s Monday morning, and I wake up at 6:30 – long before my 7:15 alarm. The light is pouring in from the huge window that our blinds fail to cover. I roll out of bed and let a pot of water heat up while I brush my teeth. Three weeks into our trip to Portland and I have my morning routine well-established. My roommate is already gone for the day, waking up before 6 to head out into the fields with Friends of Trees to do field work before the afternoon sun makes pruning invasive blackberry bushes unbearable. While I wait for the water to boil, I pick some errant flowers from the budding basil plant on my windowsill – $4 at the farmer’s market! I get dressed and fill my thermos with coffee, put my lunch in my bag, then double-check the bus schedule before heading out the door.
The morning bus ride to work is not unlike the C1, although it is much easier to find a seat here than during the 11:45 rush at Duke. I put my earbuds in and look out the window as we pass landmarks that have become more familiar. I can sense the sharp turn onto Burnside Bridge without looking (but I usually triple-check Google Maps just to make sure), and I pull the stop once we’re across the river. A couple more minutes of walking and I finally turn into the Urban Gleaners warehouse. The welcome, buttery scent of Tracy’s Small Batch Granola wafts through the office as I make my way through the warehouse, past crates of bananas and potatoes, and plop my backpack down at my desk.
The day starts out slow, with a couple phone calls to potential drop-off locations for an extra 500 lbs of donated prepared food. Urban Gleaners is a nonprofit that takes donations of food from markets, restaurants, and corporate businesses that would otherwise go to waste, and redistributes it at food pantries across Portland and surrounding towns. They aim to combat food insecurity, which is an issue affecting 1 in 5 people in Oregon – not for lack of food itself, but for lack of distribution. Donations are repackaged in the UG warehouse by over 100 volunteers over the course of a week. It’s always a surprise what food comes in. On this particular Monday, we had pans of rice and beans, sesame noodles, beef saltado, assorted pastries, stewed chard and tomatoes, chickpea-cauliflower curry, and per usual, soy curls. I joined the ranks of volunteers to mix and match foods to make more cohesive meals, quickly packing them away into plastic containers and printing out labels. We then fill milk crates with assorted meals, joking about the Tetris skills needed to fit everything in. Hearing the beep of a truck backing up into the warehouse to drop off more food, I head over and begin sorting pre-packaged products.
Chicken caesar wraps, fresh apricots and figs, and gluten free bagels blur together, and an hour later all the crates are finally sorted and neatly tucked away into the walk-in fridges. I head back into the office to munch on some nuts and answer some emails, but just a few minutes later it’s time to head out for pantry visits and a pickup. We drive for an hour and drop half the crates at a health center, then the other half at a food pantry. It’s one thing to see all the food come into the warehouse and package it up at the source, but another entirely to witness it going into the hands and shopping bags of the people eating it. This job isn’t just sitting at a desk, reading about the issues of hunger and poverty in Portland and musing on what might be done to fix them; it’s hands-on work that you see through from start to finish, with a direct impact on communities that you can see on a daily basis.
We empty the truck of food and finally head to pick up a donation before heading back to the warehouse. 1300 lbs of potato salad and coleslaw later, we load back into the truck. We joke about waking up the next day with sore backs and aching arms, but we revel in the amount of food we’re moving; it would have otherwise gone entirely to waste. The work at small nonprofits like Urban Gleaners is nitty-gritty and sometimes labor intensive, but it’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve done.