5. Gleaning is Good

One of the ways food gets wasted happens on farms, when part of a crop is never harvested, or when it is reaped but not sold to consumers.

In both cases, the causes are economic and understandable.  Harvesting is not cheap to accomplish.  When it’s done by machines, it costs money (and time) to run them, so the number of times they go into the fields must be limited;  when workers do the picking, they need to be paid.  As a result, some pieces of the crop may be machine-harvested when not quite ripe, while stragglers that ripen later than the main crop may not be worth enough to pay to fire up the machinery or recall the workers, and may therefore be left to rot.  A different economic factor is that many farmers contract with a processing or distributing company to deliver a certain amount of whatever produce they grow — only they cannot assume either that growing conditions will be perfect or that pests will not make inroads.  They therefore have to plant extra acres, over and above what they have a contracted market for.  And then if they happily end up with more harvest than their contract specifies, they have no place to sell it, and may turn it under or send it to a composting operation or to a biodigester that will burn this food for energy.

Representative Pingree’s Food Recovery Act (see previous post) would rescue edible food from digesters and compost operations for food pantries.  But food waste that’s due to extra food not being economically worth harvesting is open to a different solution:  gleaning.

Gleaning is such an ancient practice that it’s mentioned in the Bible, where farmers are instructed to leave stray bits of the crop in the field for the poor to take.  It still exists:  modern gleaning also salvages for the poor good food that would not have been used, although now that many of the poor live in big cities this generally involves food pantries rather than Ruth the Moabite going out to Boaz’s fields (Book of Ruth).  Many modern groups that describe themselves as gleaning collect from farmers’ markets, stores, and backyards (which will be treated in a different post), but there are also some groups around the country that work directly with farmers in their fields.

One such group, which provides a good example of how it works, is Boston Area Gleaners (BAG).  Founded in 2004, BAG has a list of over 800 prequalified volunteers, so when one of the farms it works with finds itself with extra produce in the field, the farmer contacts BAG and BAG puts out an email alert.   Volunteers who respond are then informed about date, place, time, and how to get there;  they generally glean a farm within a couple of days of the request.  Volunteers spend 2-3 hours in the field each time, and the produce they gather is donated to a local food bank.  Last year they donated almost 90,000 pounds. As of 2014, BAG was working with about 10 farms — but notes that there are perhaps 1000 within an hours’ drive of their Waltham, Massachusetts headquarters, and as the group is still growing, it hopes in future to engage with an increasing number of them.

While BAG works in the Boston area, there are other similar groups in Maine (Healthy Acadia), in the Southeast and West (Society of St. Andrew), and several in California;  there are also odd farms, such as Peaceful Belly Farm in Boise, ID and Parker Farms in Oak Creek, VA that encourage gleaning as part of their operations.

Volunteers get a satisfying outdoor volunteer experience and often a sense of community.  Farmers get the satisfaction of knowing that all the food they grew will actually be eaten, and may get a tax break (depending on where they live;  the Food Recovery Act would help with this also).  And people who are hungry or “food insecure” — whether due to inadequate wages, old age, or disability — get good fresh nutritious tasty produce.

Gleaning in the fields of farmers who grow fruits and vegetables, especially the large number who farm within easy distance of cities, could be greatly expanded.  Doing so could save a lot of food that’s now wasted, and thus significantly reduce hunger.  Better tax breaks for farmers would help, but for gleaning to really “scale up” will require more people in more places to organize new gleaning groups.  A nice 8-page pamphlet by the USDA entitled “Let’s Glean” explains exactly how to do that.  It is available at usda.gov/documents/usda.gleaning.toolkit.pdf

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley



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