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The Gleaners: Giving More Than Food to the Working Poor

The Gleaners: Giving More Than Food to the Working Poor

The Birches offer 600 Portland families—including my own—a path to financial freedom.

A few years ago, my husband was laid off from his job at a food processing plant, instantly cutting his income in half. As a self-employed cleaning woman, my wages weren't much better. With two kids and a house payment, dipping into our savings to make ends meet was a short-term solution that was about to run out.

We worried about going into debt. We had worked hard over the years in our marriage to live within our means. What we were going to do?

That's when we remembered a couple we'd met at Community Bible Fellowship, a church we'd been a part of in southeast Portland who had a way of helping families like ours.

Nearly two decades ago, Barry and Suzanne Birch started giving food away from the comfort of their front porch. Little did they know that that simple act would grow into an 18,000-square-foot warehouse replete with triple high pallet racks, walk-in refrigerators and freezers, and shelves stocked to the hilt with food—forming one of the most dynamic food ministries in Portland.

In 1992, says Barry Birch, co-founder of Birch Community Services (BCS) with Suzanne, "We heard from a friend that bread was going to waste at a local organization. We started picking it up on an on-call basis."

Three years later, after over 100 families had shown up at their door to collect gleaned foods, the Birches formed a board of directors and applied for nonprofit status. "Then more calls came, and more people came who needed help," remembers Barry. Some friends who supported the mission purchased a 2,900-square-foot warehouse for their use, but the operation outgrew the space in six months.

Today, from a much bigger warehouse located in east Portland, BCS provides food to more than 600 families—including mine, for a season—using an accountability system and, most recently, gardening courses that ensure recipients can become self-sustaining.

"We're a hand-up, not a handout," say the Birches. "It's 90 percent about the people and only 10 percent about the food."

It would be easy to mistake BCS as another food bank, but the organization has evolved beyond that. Recipients must apply and pay $50/month to shop at BCS, and the application is referral based by those who are current participants. Applicants are asked for information about their income and debt, and to outline their financial goal for being on the program. If accepted, there are guidelines to follow—including mandatory volunteering twice a month and one financial accountability class.

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Displaying 1–5 of 14 comments

Jane Carter

December 28, 2011  4:57pm

We have benefited from BCS for 9 years and it has kept us afloat thru several ups and downs - financially, emotionally and spiritually. I feel connected as family there, working with so many others to create and maintain something much bigger than could be done if we all just work singly within our own families. I know there would be no way I could be a stay at home mom homeschooling my 4 kids and volunteering in other positions if it wasn't for BCS. :)

Rick & Debbi Teeny

December 27, 2011  3:27pm

We are very proud of the way Barry and Suzanne have kept the faith and lived out Christ in their approach to helping others. They have been great role models in living out the Christian faith. We will continue to support BCS and give product and financial help as long as Christ is the center of the giving. Great job Barry and Suzanne, Teeny Foods is very proud to be a partner with you. In Christ!

Pam Hogeweide

December 20, 2011  9:52pm

@Lew, well Barry did end up saying that it was probably just as well that Wyden didn't come through for them, as there likely would have been governmental strings attached that would have made it difficult. In the end, things are working out for BCS without govt aid as things historically have always worked out for them.

Tim Childs

December 20, 2011  3:56pm

All charity really boils down to those who have, giving to those who don't have; it's as simple as that. Leave all the dogma out of it, and think to yourself: "if we were poor and struggling, how would we like to be treated?" You all know the answer. We can all do more to help the poor and genuinely needy!

heather n joe p

December 20, 2011  2:09pm

Amazing chritstian based place to go n start ur day with prayer with other peole that believe in our powerful awesome God! This place was wonderful we'd still b involved if we didn't feel like others might b needing it more. Definately a blessed place!

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