I’m standing in a warehouse on the industrial outskirts of Portland, Oregon, tearing mounds of plastic wrap from a pallet stacked tall with hundreds of cardboard boxes of salvaged fruits and vegetables. The wrap curls in mounds at my feet as I slice boxes with a carboard cutter and sort through clamshells filled with strawberries, flats of organic peaches, giant cantaloupes in mesh bags, and a mammoth bin of herbs in tiny plastic cases.
Some of the produce is rotten—this I dump onto another pallet—but most is perfectly good and I arrange it on a warehouse cart. I volunteer once a month here as a member of a local food redistribution nonprofit, Birch Community Services, which aims to uplift working families and to staunch the river of waste inherent in our food supply chains. Birch membership has given me an incredible backdoor glimpse into the challenges that plague our food system—and the solutions available to solve them.
“It goes back to the old saying, we’re not just giving people fish. We give families the tools to be successful.”
Birch Community Services is one of Oregon’s largest food distribution programs—last year it redistributed 13.7 million pounds of food and household goods—but it’s no food pantry dispensing emergency food assistance. Using rescued food as a base, Birch also runs a financial literacy program that helps families take control of their money—and gain consistent access to healthy food—over the long term. It could serve as a national model for how to address some of the roots of food insecurity and to stop more food from heading to the landfill.
“It goes back to the old saying, we’re not just giving people fish,” Birch’s warehouse manager, Andrew Rowlett, told me. “The participants are the answer. We give families the tools to be successful and we do it in an environment where people are supporting each other.”
Financial Stability Through Groceries
Food insecurity has soared for some Americans during the pandemic. Many people were already living paycheck to paycheck. When COVID-19 hit, their cars lined up for miles outside food banks while volunteers loaded pre-packed boxes of food into their trunks. Communities of color and immigrants, who historically have had higher food insecurity rates, were especially impacted.
And while the food crisis has eased a little, it continues at pre-pandemic levels, with many food banks expanding their warehouses to accommodate the higher demand and others struggling to meet demand. But experts have warned for years that food banks and pantries are meant as temporary solutions and other programs and policies are needed to address the roots of the problem—namely, financial instability and systemic racism. In other words, anti-hunger organizations have to start thinking beyond food, according to Katie Martin, executive director of the Foodshare Institute for Hunger Research and Solutions, and author of Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries.
Birch offers one such approach. The nonprofit is a cross between a members-only food bank, a food co-op, and a financial fitness club. Every month, member families pay $80 and volunteer at least two hours at the warehouse—where they can then shop weekly, at no cost, for food and household products. Each family is paired up with a financial counselor (the organization employs two in-house) and is required to take a multi-week financial course. Families meet with their counselor to set financial goals, craft a savings plan, and create a “family vision” to align their budget and spending with their values. They check in every three months on accomplishments and challenges. Families also get free access to a budgeting app and financial literacy books for their children.
“[Our program] vastly reduces the cost of [members’] groceries and builds a margin, a bubble that goes back into their budget to be repurposed,” said executive director Suzanne Birch, who founded the organization nearly 30 years ago with her late husband Larry Birch. “The accountability, combined with the finance class, gives people tools to succeed.”
Birch serves a different demographic than most aid programs. It focuses on working, lower-middle-class families who are struggling to get ahead financially due to low salaries, sudden job losses, illnesses, and large debt burdens. People who are unemployed and/or already receive government food assistance like SNAP or cash benefits (TANF) are not eligible to join, unless they are actively looking for work.
“There are lots of people who don’t qualify for assistance and yet are having a hard time,” said Birch. “Those people often fall through the cracks.”
My partner and I both have university degrees, yet we live paycheck to paycheck. Over the past five years I have worked only part-time as a freelance journalist, raising our young son and watching my income shrink. My partner works full time as an early childhood family specialist, a profession notable for low wages. We have educational and other debts and a mortgage to pay. And, as two first-generation immigrants, we can’t rely on our parents for help. Joining this program has allowed us to start paying off some debt, build an emergency savings account, and start breathing easier.
“We call it the dignity of the exchange. Everyone has something to offer—a service fee, the volunteering. Even if you’re broke, you can make a positive impact.”
Birch isn’t a charity. Participants are essential to the functioning and financial stability of the organization. Families and other volunteers account for 65 percent of the nonprofit’s labor; the work they put in equates to that of more than 20 full time employees. Membership fees pay nearly 70 percent of the nonprofit’s operational costs. The remaining revenue comes from individual donations and grants. Birch has never applied for nor received government funding. Most of its paid staff and two members of its board of directors are former Birch members. In other words, the emphasis is on working as a community to become self-sufficient and to help others do the same.
“We call it the dignity of the exchange,” Birch told me. “Everyone has something to offer—a service fee, the volunteering. Even if you’re broke, you can make a positive impact. People realize this place would not be open if it wasn’t for them.”
This sense of reciprocity also removes the stigma that is often associated with receiving emergency food assistance. “I’ve heard many participants tell me about previous experiences of getting food boxes or going to food banks and just feeling bad,” said Valerie Rippey, Birch’s community development manager. “Here, there is no shame. Everyone is going through a hard financial time and needing a little extra help, but no one is looking at them with pity.”
Over the past three decades, the organization has served close to 20,000 families directly. About 600 are currently part of the program. Last year, the average Birch family included a household of five with three children, $25,000 in debt, and $60,000 in annual income. In Multnomah County, where most Birch members reside, the living wage for a family of five with one working adult is $89,000 (or $120,000 with two working adults). The average family belongs to Birch for two to three years, though there is no time limit to membership. About 70 nonprofits are also Birch members with shopping privileges, including drop-in food pantries at churches, community centers, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters. These partnerships help the organization reach another 15,000–20,000 people weekly.
Keeping Food Out of Landfills
Birch members can also feel good knowing that 100 percent of the food and household items the nonprofit redistributes is rescued from the landfill. Most food banks purchase new food in addition to receiving private donations and U.S. Department of Agriculture food aid. But, said Birch, “our policy is to never buy anything.”
Birch volunteers pick up food from 300 different corporate donors, ranging from local distribution centers to individual grocery stores, Costco, a produce company, a dairy cooperative, and a large bread company. Out-of-town truck drivers whose loads get rejected by distribution centers or stores also often drop off perfectly good products at Birch.
Much of this food would be rejected by a regular grocery store due to slight damage or product changes, said Rowlett, the warehouse manager. Packaging is routinely damaged at distribution centers as workers accidentally drop boxes or run into pallets with fork lifts. Manufacturers retire products after changing packaging styles, ingredients, or UPC codes—or launching a new product line. Some products are “excess inventory,” don’t sell, or get too close to their best by/peak freshness dates (though they aren’t usually expired). Bakeries overproduce bread, chips, and other goods. And grocery stores throw out everything that has even a minor blemish or damage—such as a large bag of potatoes with one bad potato in it—because their customers expect pristine products and store employees don’t have the time to pick through boxes to find the damaged ones.