Can collecting leftover produce help us re-envision the world?
Mike Cohen, executive director of the Bellingham Food Bank in Washington, often gets phone calls from area farmers who have recently harvested a crop. These small-scale organic farmers call to say they just picked carrots or kale or apples from their fields and are ready for the gleaners – volunteers who pick leftover produce and distribute it to the poor. Sometimes these calls come a few days before a farmer wants the gleaners to arrive. Sometimes Cohen’s phone rings just a day before a farmer needs them. He’s never sure when the next call will come and exactly what crop his group will be picking.
Cohen helps run Small Potatoes Gleaning, a volunteer organization that provides leftover produce to people who are struggling to afford food on their own. Small Potatoes is just one of many such organizations across the country that are turning to gleaning to prevent waste, provide fresh food to the hungry, and build community. After he gets the call from a local farmer, it’s time for Cohen to spread the word – via e-mails, phone calls, and word of mouth. He has a regular group of volunteers he relies on in moments like these, people with flexible schedules who can travel to the fields and pick leftover produce to be donated throughout the community.
In Bellingham, gleaners head out into the Sudden Valley’s fields to pick fruit from damp tree branches and vegetables from the moist ground. The clouds hang low and light rain often falls on the group, mostly college kids, high school students doing community service, and retired couples. The organic and local food movements are strong here, and they motivate many of the gleaners. The organic farmers Small Potatoes works with, meanwhile, are motivated not just by altruism, but by the savings they reap by having gleaners, rather than laborers, take care of their unmarketable leftovers.
Gleaning has been practiced for more than 2,000 years. Many modern-day gleaning groups look to the Bible for inspiration when it comes to collecting fruit and vegetables for the hungry. For example, Leviticus 19:10 states: “Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien.” In a variety of ancient cultures, it was standard practice for the poor to be allowed onto a farmer’s land after the harvest to collect the leftovers. Now, gleaning is practiced by people both religious and secular, urban and rural, on the East and West Coasts, and throughout the heartland.
While it once made sense to allow the hungry onto farmers’ fields at the end of a harvest, the practice is less common today, as most people live far away from fields. That shift has transformed the practice of gleaning. Now, gleaning operations often involve staff or volunteers from established programs who go into the countryside to collect produce, then bring it back to the town or city to be distributed. At the same time, a newly conscious public is thinking more about where their food comes from and how it gets to the table. In large part, gleaning is an extension of an ethic that promotes local, healthy food, limits waste, and reduces resource consumption.
“There is always considerable waste in most any food system,” points out Frederick Kirschenmann, Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. In the United States, a lot of waste is generated, Kirschenmann says, simply because “it does not meet some of the aesthetic standards of our modern food system.” Short carrots get passed by, bruised apples are left on the tree, oddly shaped cucumbers are dismissed, even if it’s all perfectly fine to eat. Gleaning reduces that waste.
More than 35 million people in the United States are uncertain about where they will find their next meal, according to The Food Research and Action Center. Gleaning is a practical way to get fresh food to some of those people. The practice simply links the leftover food to the people who need it. It may not be able to rid us of hunger completely – despite its wealth, the United States has a major food security problem and solutions to the problem are complex – but, many argue, gleaning is a good place to start. Plus, it offers a way for people to get closer to the land, stay connected to their community, and discover a new way of seeing the world.
One of the volunteers Small Potatoes Gleaning counts on is Pat McGraw, who has been helping collect produce for seven years. “In this recession, more and more people are relying on us,” McGraw says. “It feels good to get fresh produce to people who really need it.” She pauses, and then after thinking it over for a moment, adds, “I’m greatly rewarded because what we are doing is so needed.” Once McGraw and the other volunteers collect the leftovers, they deliver them to one or more of two-dozen outlets, such as food banks and group homes.
“We deliver to whatever partner is open the day of the glean,” Cohen, the director, explains. “It doesn’t all go to one food bank or one place.”
In contrast to Small Potatoes’ farm-based program, the gleaning program at the Tucson Community Food Bank in Arizona gathers fruit from local backyards. The food bank has a paid staff member who is in charge of gleaning, but also relies on volunteers to help collect fruit from four to six houses a day. “People in the community call us up and tell us that they have fruit,” staffer Jacob Coldsmith says, adding that its ongoing relationship with the community is key to the program’s success. The Tucson program focuses mostly on the citrus season, in winter, to provide fresh fruit at a time when most of the food they are giving away is nonperishable canned and boxed items.
The Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network, in the DC area, connects farmers to one of its many small volunteer groups. While Small Potatoes uses a regular group of volunteers, Mid-Atlantic works to connect church groups, schools, and college clubs to gleaning opportunities. The staff arranges these gleans and makes sure there is always a group available when a farmer calls. The collected produce is then distributed to food banks or church programs in the area. With multiple groups out in the fields to pick produce, the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network is able to collect a substantial amount of food – more than 2.4 million pounds of produce in 2008.
“In previous years we have moved more than that,” says Garrett Hutsko, director of operations at Mid-Atlantic. “Our goal this year is to move between 4.8 and 6 million pounds.”
In Washington, the smaller Small Potatoes group collected about 50,000 pounds in 2007, and in Tucson, the Community Food Bank was able to collect 100,000 pounds in 2008.
A recession-battered job market and an increase in poverty will no doubt strengthen the gleaning movement. The economic downturn has not only increased the number of people in need of food aid, it also challenged a culture set to run itself off a cliff of credit, commercialism, and consumerism. “Right now, people are more conscious of not wasting,” Cohen says, and gleaning is a fairly easy way to reduce waste in the food system. Plus, there is “more and more support for locally grown food and gleaning fits into that,” he adds.
The recession has been a boon for everything from home gardening to canning, and gleaning is no exception. And it’s not just organized groups that are gleaning – individuals are scouring their neighborhoods for fruit trees. In 2004, several artists in Los Angeles started fallenfruit.org, a Web site that maps fruit trees in public places for individuals to glean. The idea has caught on in other cities, like Oakland, CA (the Forage Oakland project) and Portland, OR (Urban Edibles). These projects represent a new way of seeing – the abundance all around us suddenly has become apparent. Whereas fruits trees had, for many people, become simply ornamental and devoid of meaning, a re-imagining of our everyday landscapes allows us to see them as food-producing plants. And in so doing, perhaps something larger is happening. Perhaps we can come to see our cityscapes as not outside of nature, but a part of it.
But the question for many people interested in gleaning is whether the consciousness that has developed during the recession will slip as people return to their old ways. Is the new way of seeing just momentary, or are we learning something that will change our relationships to our food and our environments? As financial writer James Surowiecki has pointed out, the Great Depression, despite a popular belief to the contrary, did not change long-term attitudes toward consumption. “If the Depression didn’t make Americans wary of the pleasures of consumption,” he writes, “it’s unlikely that this downturn will.”
Even if the gleaning consciousness survives the recession, does gleaning make sense as a way to reduce waste in the long-term? It does cut down on waste in the current system, but that doesn’t mean that it is the best way to address food waste. In California, for example, a lot of “imperfect” but edible produce is kept out of the commercial food supply, says Andy Fisher, Executive Director of the Community Food Security Coalition in Portland. One reason this is done, Fisher explains, is “to protect farmers from an oversupply on the market and to avoid plunging prices.” Such practices might leave food available for gleaners, but Fisher points out that by picking all edible produce for sale, farmers would increase supply and push the price of produce down. That would make it more affordable for low-income populations. And, if more people actually started buying fresh fruit and vegetables, farmers could benefit from an increase in demand for their newly affordable products.
In one sense, gleaning should not be necessary in a sustainable food system. If one of the main reasons that food is left on the vine is that it does not fit an aesthetic ideal, then a sustainable system that values a variety of food shapes and sizes might reduce the amount of food wasted to begin with. In 2008, the European Union relaxed shape restrictions on 26 types of fruits and vegetables because of rising prices. It’s easy to imagine that funny looking fruit might catch on, as funky shaped heirloom tomatoes have for certain shoppers. That switch would obviously leave less food available for gleaning groups, but gleaning could continue on a smaller scale, as in Tucson or Los Angeles, where the fruit is harvested from backyards and sidewalks.
Providing the poor with fresh produce is the most obvious immediate benefit of the current gleaning movement. The lasting impact of gleaning may come by way of linking city people to the land where their food grows. As Cohen tells it, “we have kids [who come gleaning] who didn’t know that carrots come from the ground. ‘What are the green things on the top?’ they ask.” For many people, working in the fields is several generations behind them. Along with home gardening efforts and visits to the local farmers’ market, gleaning can help connect a younger generation to their food.
In Tucson, where citrus season is in full swing, Jacob Coldsmith and the Community Food Bank are ramping up their efforts. In his office in South Tucson, Coldsmith reflects on the diversity of options gleaning adds to the food bank’s offerings. “It’s nice to get healthier food out to people,” he says. “The more [volunteers] get into it, the more they will see what is available to glean. There really is a lot to glean, if you look around.”
Kyle Boelte has written about environmental issues for Orion, High Country News, and The Christian Science Monitor. He lives in the western US.