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“I Opened the Cupboards, and There Was Nothing There”

We’re profiling some of the wonderful organizations we’ve met through our YNAB for Good program. These groups are working to create financial stability in marginalized communities. We’re excited to introduce you to the incredible setup of Birch Community Services in Portland, Oregon.

Lisa remembers opening the cupboards—and there was nothing there.

“I didn’t want to admit it, even to my husband. I had been stretching everything we had,” she said. Her husband had recently started his own cleaning business, but then the inflows had suddenly dried up.

When her husband suggested they might try a food bank, she was shocked. Lisa had volunteered at a food pantry before, but she had never been to one.

“I felt so bad. I cried the whole way there, the whole way back. Is this what life has come to? Is this where we’re at?”

When a friend told her about Birch Community Services, she was hesitant at first—would it be like her food bank experience?

About Birch Community Services

Birch Community Services is a financial literacy program based in Portland. They use food distribution as a platform for families to build financial margin into their budgets. The families served by Birch sit between a difficult gap—they don’t make enough to make ends meet, but they don’t qualify for government assistance. This thin financial margin—whether from looming debt or jobs that don’t provide a livable wage—often prevents these families from getting ahead. Birch Community Services aims to help these families build a thicker security cushion through discounted groceries and financial training.

The warehouse at BCS is filled with groceries and household goods.

Lisa decided to give Birch a try—and within moments of her first visit, it felt different.  

“It’s a community. People here are treated with respect. We’ve fallen in love with Birch with what it provides for our family.”

BCS By the Numbers

  • 800 families participate in the program.
  • 13.8 million pounds of food donated last year.
  • 3,000 pounds of fresh produce grown in the teaching gardens.
  • $30 per family: the cost for BCS to support a family of five for one month.
  • $7,000 of debt paid off by each family within their first year, on average.
  • $1,000 added to their savings by each family within their first year, on average.
  • 1,350 volunteers took part in making Birch run smoothly in 2020. Participating families make up 90% of the volunteers. Without their help, the cost of Birch would be prohibitive.
Each participant volunteers at least two hours per month in the warehouse or gardens.

Dignity in the Exchange

A key piece of the program is the exchange—each participant in the program serves at least two hours per month in the warehouse or gardens. Families also give $80/month to be a member. In return, families can shop weekly at Birch’s warehouse-turned-grocery store. The program estimates families are able to take home an average of $1,000 in food, clothing, and household items each month.

People here are treated with respect.

“It relieves so much of that stress, that pressure,” Lisa says.

Families also meet 1:1 with Dino Biaggi, the Financial Literacy Manager, and enroll in a multi-session Re$tart course. The sessions cover money management topics like credit, debt elimination, and budgeting, along with the psychological and relational aspects of finances—determining your priorities and being a good steward. During the budgeting segment, free YNAB subscriptions are offered as a resource for families to use in budgeting.

“Meeting with Dino—and doing the financial planning—that has really helped us.” Lisa says. “Are we spending our money wisely, is it going toward our family’s priorities?”

Each family enrolls in a multi-session money management course.

Birch’s combination of daily needs and long-term planning has proven powerful over their 30+ years in existence. On average, families were able to decrease their debt by $7,000 and increase their savings by $1,000 within the first year of participating in the program.

A Thriving, Sustainable Cycle

The Birch model is based on a thriving sustainable cycle. It starts with the generosity of local businesses who are able to give their surplus. Families on the receiving end give their time and resources as well—stocking the shelves or working in the gardens. There is a sense of joy among participants that not only can they give back, but they directly contribute to the well-being of the other families in the program.

BCS has an extensive series of gardens to supply fresh produce to the warehouse.

“It’s so powerful to be able to give back to our fellow shoppers. We get to be a part of this, and we get to give back. It becomes this overwhelming flow, because you’ve experienced the goodness here too.”

Birch Community Services is an independently run financial literacy program, garden, and food distribution program in Portland. It’s one of the largest food distribution programs in Oregon, but has never received any outside funding, and consistently ranks as one of Portland’s top non-profits. Birch aims to create a dignity within the exchange that seeks to be “a hand up, not a hand-out.” Learn more about Birch Community Services or our YNAB for Good program for your local non-profit.

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“I Opened the Cupboards, and There Was Nothing There”