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Gresham businesses, community balance sustainability with stability during global pandemic

PMG FILE PHOTO - Adam Kohl, with Outgrowing Hunger, was able to connect with Birch Community Services through a digital meeting to put together food boxes. In Gresham there is a strong community of businesses bound by a goal — reducing their environmental footprint and promoting good green practices.

That coalition and common mindset has led to nimble responses in the past. While other municipalities have seen conversations around climate change, plastic bag bans and food waste get mired among politicians and amid heated social media debates, locally they have been tackled by the businesses most affected. Often the solutions created are ahead of the curve, and shared amongst peers.

So when an unprecedented crisis in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic struck the globe, the Gresham Green Business community was able to face the new issues and problems — together.

"Large and small businesses have a lot to share with one another, even if they offer vastly different services or have opposite structures," said Gregg Hayward, Gresham business sustainability outreach coordinator.

The Green Business Program, created by the city, has experts meet with businesses to provide recommendations that can save money and natural resources. The group also gives out awards to recognize green efforts being made.

Normally the monthly gatherings are held at a host business so attendees can be inspired by new sustainable ideas and enjoy some coffee — but with the pandemic, things shifted online.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - The Gresham Green Business program met virtually to share ideas on how to thrive during COVID-19. On Wednesday morning, April 29, the sustainable business community convened through a video conference. The main refrain was finding a balance between continuing to implement green practices while also surviving the crisis financially.

"We need to recognize that we won't get very far in talking about sustainability without thinking of people and profits," Hayward said.

Chris Walker, with Portland General Electric, gave tips on how businesses can reduce electricity usage, and the city shared some of the resources available during the crisis. But the majority of the gathering was dedicated to having green community members voice their ideas, questions and worries.

One member has been ordering groceries with his neighbors through a delivery service, while another is posting fliers in her neighborhood about her willingness to purchase groceries for the less tech-savvy in her community.

Others asked for tips on how to maximize storage space, promoting more bartering between businesses to shift supplies to those who can best use them and help in spreading information about fundraising and donation events.

"Collectively we have gone through a crash course on how to adapt to a new way of life," Hayward said. "Sustainability is a triple bottom line — people, planet, profit."

Changing priorities

PMG FILE PHOTO - Community members are looking for new ways to be green during the coronavirus crisis.During the virtual meeting a connection was made between two organizations attempting to feed vulnerable people across East Multnomah County.

Outgrowing Hunger, a nonprofit organization that oversees community gardens, is bolstering its services during the pandemic. Because of its easy access to fresh produce and its connection to vulnerable community members and refugees, Adam Kohl, founder and executive director, wanted to expand to delivering food boxes. But he needed help.

The Oregon Food Bank did not return any of his phone calls, and Kohl wasn't sure how to proceed with getting the food boxes put together. So he voiced his question during the Gresham Green Business meeting. Birch Community Services, a nonprofit organization that redistributes food, clothing and household goods to those in need, stepped up and offered to have Outgrowing Hunger assemble and bolster its food boxes through its food pantry.

"We are going to work together to get through this," Hayward said.

For the city of Gresham and the green business community, the focus has shifted during the spread of COVID-19. While many are still doing what they can to be sustainable, the main goal is to survive the pandemic intact.

"We need our businesses to financially make it through this," Hayward said. "Right now the focus is on the bottom line and employees."

Rather than do site visits to the many green businesses across the community, Hayward has joined a task force that checks in with local companies to connect them with resources. He has also been coordinating between food donation agencies and restaurants with a surplus of supplies that otherwise would go to waste.

"Many restaurants leading up to the shutdown trimmed back on orders," Hayward said.

While other areas of the food industry around the world found themselves having to toss out large quantities of goods, Gresham was better situated. Food that appeared bound for the dumpster instead were passed along to organizations like Birch Community Services and SnowCap Community Charities.

"Food waste prevention is the hot topic across the state," said Shannon Martin, manager of recycling and solid waste.

Earth Day at home

PMG FILE PHOTO - The city of Gresham had to cancel its Earth Day event because of COVID-19, so it created green videos and activities that can be done at home. The normal way people celebrate Earth Day, with volunteer events out in nature and activities dedicated to promoting recycling, wasn't possible while staying safe from COVID-19.

So in lieu of its normal festivities, Gresham worked with other regional partners to come up with programs that can be enjoyed at home.

On the city website is a link, greshamoregon.gov/Earth-Day/, which includes activities ranging from youth climate art projects to vegetable gardening online courses to educational videos on pollinators, floodplains and sloughs.

As a parent of three, Shaunna Sutcliffe, Gresham's residential recycling coordinator, has been looking for ways to give her kids fun and educational activities to complete while stuck at home.

"A lot of the things one the website are a fun project for kids learning at home," she said.

The city helped create six virtual workshops for people to learn about ways to promote sustainability and reuse habits within their own lives. The videos, which served as a stand-in for the canceled Earth Day events, ranged in topic from healthy cleaning and natural lawn care to making food last and turning your back yard into a haven for bees.

Community members can continue having a positive impact on the environment by eating smart and reducing food waste.

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - While takeout containers arent recyclable, city officials said to continue supporting small businesses however you can. Twenty percent of the food each household buys never gets eaten, and a quarter of fresh water goes to grow food that doesn't get consumed. With more people cooking and eating at home because of the social isolation mandate, the potential for food waste is even greater.

"The average U.S. family of four wastes about $1,500 per year on food they buy and don't eat," Sutcliffe said.

That wasted food takes water, energy, transportation, labor and more to be created.

Like the new mindset among the Gresham Green Business community, it's not possible to be militaristic when it comes to sustainability during COVID-19. The city experts said it's OK and good to order takeout from restaurants, even if the containers cannot be recycled.

"Supporting small business is the No. 1 priority right now," Sutcliffe said.

One small thing that can be done is bringing your own bags to carry the containers of food, forgoing plastic bags offered by the business. Customers can also tell the restaurant they don't need the plastic utensils, straws or napkins.

It is also important not to do "wish recycling," which is when someone attempts to recycle something that belongs in the garbage. Having to sort through incorrect items takes time and effort that is better spent elsewhere.

"People recycling correctly and supporting our local businesses is a win-win," Martin said.


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