Birch Community Services, a unique food redistribution program in Portland, Oregon, takes a radical approach to rescuing food, reducing food waste, and helping people manage their money.
Birch Community Services, a unique food redistribution program in Portland, Oregon, takes a radical approach to rescuing food, reducing food waste, and helping people manage their money.
November 30, 2021
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.”
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.
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.
“[In the distribution and retail world] everything is move, move, move, constantly,” Rowlett said. “The manufacturer doesn’t want it back, the vendor doesn’t want it, they can’t quickly find a third-party liquidation company to sell it to, so they used to just throw it away. Now they give it to us.”
Birch also receives new and experimental food products that never make it into mainstreams stores. “We once got cappuccino-flavored chips, 80 pallets of them,” Rowlett recalls. “I think it was a flop.”
The nonprofit prides itself on how quickly and efficiently it can take donations. That’s why it has seen such growth, Rowlett said. He personally answers the donation hotline 24/7—sometimes at 1:00 in the morning—and dispatches the organization’s five trucks to pick up waiting food. “When they call, we’re there. We get it off their dock so they can feel good about it and continue working,” he said.
To Rowlett, Birch has always been “a microcosm of the rest of the food industry.” The unwanted products that come into the warehouse offer a window into what’s selling, what’s not, and where the biggest sources of waste are. This past year, that included fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and baked goods, Rowlett said. Plant-based dairy and meats were also in over-supply—and they aren’t popular with most of the shopping families.
To further cut down on what goes to the landfill, Birch donates spoiled produce to more than 20 livestock and compost farmers. The organization recycles cardboard, cans, pallets, and metal. It has also worked over the years to expand the number of families and diversify the type of nonprofits it works with. Still, there is waste left over. After several months spent working it the warehouse, it has become clear to me that Birch cannot do it alone; the manufacturing and distribution sectors must change to reduce food and plastic waste before food reaches families like ours.
My family is new to Birch, so we’re not yet financially stable. But the program appears to work for those who stick to their financial goals. Take Sara and Ray Hurst of Woodland, Washington. They worked long hours—one as a cosmetologist, the other as a construction worker—and their toddler had special needs requiring countless specialists. Ray’s work was seasonal, making it difficult to budget, and the unpaid bills began to stack up. And yet their income didn’t qualify them for food assistance either.
“We starved in winter and thrived in summer, and we were poor money managers,” Hurst told me. “We were drowning in debt.”
When they joined Birch four years ago the Hursts finally stopped worrying about food. As their cupboards filled up, they could focus on paying down their debt. Since then, Hurst and her husband say they have paid back $31,000 in credit card, personal, medical, and family debts. They bought two used cars and put all their bills on auto-pay for the first time. They were even able to “live a little,” buying new clothes for their three children and ordering pizza and donuts on special occasions.
“I never knew much about money,” said Hurst. “Birch is great about food, but the financial education aspect is even better. Having the support makes all the difference.”
Their story is not atypical. According to Rippey, most families who join Birch eliminate $10,000–$40,000 of debt within the first few years and accumulate significant savings. They’re able to pay cash for emergency expenses and many are able to send their children to college debt-free.
Hurst no longer worries about not having enough food, and she’s confident that sense of security will remain even once she leaves Birch. “With the new tools I’ve learned, plus my budget shopping skills, our family will be ok,” she said.
Birch families also often undergo a personal transformation when it comes to food waste. Unlike at many food pantries, where clients receive a pre-packed box of food, Birch shoppers get 50 minutes to shop—though what’s available at the warehouse varies widely from week to week and day to day. Sometimes, there are 20 different varieties and flavors of yogurt. At other times there’s no yogurt at all. Some produce is incredibly fresh, some is overripe. Staples such as white flour and tomato sauce are hard to come by, meaning creativity is sometimes required to make a meal.
Still, the sheer array of goods at the warehouse is dizzying, including many organic, high-end, and novelty products that cost top dollar at the grocery store. There are snacks, hot sauces, ice creams, and teas galore. Limits on some items—”one box per family,” or “choose two different items from specialty shelf”—ensure that less abundant products get shared equitably. Everything else is unlimited. Shopping is done on an honor system—families promise not to sell the food or give it away outside the household—and there is no checkout counter or cash register.
Every year, new families calculate the retail value of all the items they receive during one month of shopping at Birch, as if they had purchased them at the grocery store. On average, that value is about $1,000. It’s a significant amount, but that number also exposes a flaw of the Birch program, or rather a flaw of human nature—yet it’s one that over time can turn into a strength.
“Here is the beauty of Birch: Its financial literacy program also teaches participants how to spend less, consume less, and want less in order to reach freedom from debt.”
The incredible abundance of goods at the warehouse can be overwhelming at first, making it difficult not to take home more than you need. During our first few months at Birch, we certainly took a lot more than we ever would have if we were shopping at a store and paying for it all. After becoming Birch members, as our pantry and fridge filled to the brim, I kept asking myself, “Do we really need quite so many boxes of organic quinoa, slabs of grass-fed butter, and boxes of artisanal crackers?!”
I felt incredibly grateful for being able to bring these products home and proud for rescuing them from the landfill. Yet, I also worried we were learning to want too much. I fretted that we were contributing to our planet’s waste problem by consuming too many fancy organic foods—pistachios, almond flour, apricots. It was like being invited to an all-you-can-eat buffet and overeating every single time.
Suzanne Birch told me most families struggle with this impulse—at least at first. The program doesn’t want to control what people take, she said, especially as many come to Birch after significant hardships. “When you have gone without for a long time, it’s hard to pass it by,” she adds.
But here is the beauty of Birch: Its financial literacy program also teaches participants how to spend less, consume less, and want less in order to reach freedom from debt. At the grocery store, people usually think about whether they can afford to buy something. At Birch, they start thinking: Is this the best choice for my family? Do we really need it? It took time, self-reflection, and a determined mouse who started nibbling at our pantry’s overflowing provisions to help us realize we did not need to take it all.
Suzanne Birch says the nonprofit still has work to do to improve its program. At the top of the list is making Birch more diverse and culturally responsive, especially given that food insecurity and financial instability are more rampant in immigrant communities and communities of color. Currently, less than 1 percent of Birch participants are Black, 1 percent are Asian, and just 6 percent are Latinx (in a county where 6 percent of the population is Black, 12 percent is Latinx, and 8 percent is Asian). Also, the nonprofit is located on the edge of Rockwood, one of Oregon’s most diverse neighborhoods where Latinx people make up one third of the population, making it imperative to widen access.
Since Birch isn’t just a food pantry, communication for non-English speakers is a major challenge, Suzanne Birch said. In the past, the nonprofit employed translators, but the results were awkward and inefficient. Within the next 10 years, she said, Birch plans to hire a Spanish-speaking financial counselor and other multilingual staff, and to translate its written curriculum to better serve more diverse families.
“We’re not just here moving boxes. We’re supporting families as they go through tough times. When someone [here] can finally breathe and see a path forward . . . watching that transformation unfold is worth it.”
“Many local Spanish speakers fit into our target demographic,” said Birch. “And we ultimately don’t want language to be a limiting factor of who can receive our services.”
With the holiday season upon us and so many still struggling with food insecurity, I have often wondered why there aren’t more nonprofits like Birch. It’s easier to hand out a food box than to accompany someone for a few years as they attempt to make a significant life change, Rowlett, the warehouse manager, told me. But when you do, the results are lasting.
“We’re not just here moving boxes,” he said. “We’re supporting families as they go through tough times. When someone comes into the program, the moment they can finally breathe and see a path forward . . . watching that transformation unfold is worth it.”
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