Photo: Urban Gleaners founder Tracy Oseran in the warehouse in pre-COVID days.
BY KERRY POLITZER
Since 2006 Urban Gleaners founder Tracy Oseran has tirelessly fed the hungry in Portland.
“We directly provide food to families,” she says. “Our focus, probably eight or nine years ago, really became kids, because it turned out that there’s really a huge amount of food insecurity for families and children.”
Tracy was inspired by the Biblical practice of leaving the corners of fields untouched so that the poor might harvest them. “I feel so strongly about that,” she remarks. “No one in this country should ever be hungry; we have enough food to feed people three times over.”
During Sukkot and with the new challenges posed by COVID-19, the issue of hunger is more pressing than ever.
Before the pandemic, Urban Gleaners collected prepared food from about 150 donors including restaurants, caterers, corporations and grocery stores.
“That basically, in a week, disappeared,” says Tracy. “Everyone just shut down … it was pretty earth-shattering.” The founder has been hard at work adapting her organization’s mission to fit the new normal. “For the first time in our history, we started purchasing food, which we’ve never done. We had partnerships with local farms, and we were trying to help these farmers who (had been) supplying restaurants. Their business went away; they grew all this food and then had no one to buy it. So, we started buying some food and making the meals ourselves.”
The pandemic also forced Tracy to alter her model of food distribution. “It was, we’re going to bring all this food, we’re going to set it out on tables, and you guys shop and take what you want. (With COVID-19) we couldn’t do that anymore. So we started making boxes with one prepared meal, which would serve four people, and then milk, cheese, fresh produce and a loaf of bread, some eggs, whatever we have. What happens is families come and line up in their cars. Volunteers come, and they just place a box in each car.”
Tracy’s organization has always maintained a focus on healthy, nutritious foods. The founder waxes enthusiastic about the current offerings provided by Urban Gleaners. “CISCO (a restaurant supplier) was closed for quite some time and they’re back now, so we often will get in all this deli meat, like, a whole cooked turkey breast. And we’ll get roast beef and ham, and we get a lot of bread, so we make sandwiches.”
While Urban Gleaners lost 80 percent of its donations at the start of the pandemic, Tracy says that things are gradually evening out. Zupan’s, New Seasons and Market of Choice are once again providing regular donations, so Urban Gleaners is now able to make food pickups five or six days a week.
“Before all this, we had 67 sites where we delivered food every week,” says the founder. “And we now have 11. But we’re providing 1,000 meals a week for people. It’s not what we were doing before … but that’s still 1,000 more families who are eating.”
When asked how people might help Urban Gleaners, Tracy is clear.
“Definitely, money is the best thing. But we also still do get donations of food – community gardens, a lot of people who have fruit trees, we accept all of that.”
The organization also works with Congregation Beth Israel, where Tracy’s family are members. “We have some volunteers from temple,” she says. “The social action committee has been very supportive of us.” She adds that parents of bar or bat mitzvah kids sometimes donate their leftovers.
Urban Gleaners recently posted an informative video about its mission. If you want to learn more about how you can help during this Sukkot holiday, visit urbangleaners.org.
Kerry Politzer is a writer, foodie and pianist who moved to Portland in 2011.