The call, last-minute and tantalizing, was one that could have frustrated gleaning coordinators. A farm owned by a local Shaker community had a field with excess sweet corn; could someone harvest it for the local food bank right away? Barbara Lauze at the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn, Maine, was used to working the phones — not the fields — but there was no one else available, so she and three co-workers traveled to harvest the field on a hot and muddy day.
“It was not the way I would choose to spend my Saturday,” Lauze says.
But in four hours, the four office workers had managed to pick some 2,900 pounds of corn for the food bank. The only real frustration, says Lauze, was that there was so much more left in the field.
U.S. food banks receive infusions of fresh produce thanks to networks of volunteers who pick leftover harvests from farm fields, citrus groves and backyards across the nation. It’s called gleaning, a practice that dates back to Biblical times, when farmers used to leave their outside rows unpicked for the hungry to harvest when needed. Now, it has a few modern twists, as social media is used to coordinate harvests, and gleaning efforts sometimes cross state boundaries to redistribute the nation’s food wealth.
The largest gleaning network in the nation is coordinated by the Society of St. Andrew, or SOSA, based in Virginia. Founded in 1979 as an extension of the work by the United Methodist Church, the now nondenominational SOSA seeks to harvest excess crops to help feed the estimated 50 million undernourished Americans each year, says David McCleary, coordinator for the group’s Indiana chapter. SOSA has chapters in the lower 48 states, run mainly by volunteers who pick and distribute the crops.
“We run a very simple business,” McCleary says without a hint of irony, even though on the day of his telephone interview, he had just spent seven hours in triple-digit heat dropping off corn to food relief organizations throughout the state.
Not all of the food is gleaned in-state, McCleary says. SOSA Indiana often receives some of its annual 44,000 pounds of potatoes from as far away as Caribou, Maine. It’s catch-as-catch-can for the network from early summer to late fall, with local harvests of zucchini, squash, strawberries and apples culminating with more than 267,000 pounds of donated produce going to those in Indiana who don’t have enough nutritious food.
“Hunger in most places is not the fault of the hungry,” McCleary says. “We try to help bridge the hunger gap.”
Redistributing the harvest
Hunger doesn’t have to happen in the U.S. at all, says Jonathan Bloom, a food-waste blogger and author of American Wasteland. According to a 2012 National Resources Defense Council study, some 40 percent of the nation’s harvest is ultimately wasted. That’s more than enough food to end domestic malnutrition if a way can be found to redistribute the excess, Bloom says.
“It’s really a question of logistics and political and social will,” he says. “Gleaning is a really neat opportunity to realize some of that redistribution.”
Most of the effort has been coordinated in philanthropic circles, but in the 1990s, the federal government began encouraging gleaning for the first time.
Under the Clinton Administration, the Department of Agriculture funded a position to coordinate gleaning on a national scale, and in 1996, Congress also passed the agricultural Good Samaritan Act, which shields growers from liability for donated food. Since then, the USDA has taken up the torch of reducing food waste with its own programs to encourage gleaning. The IRS even allows backyard fruit tree owners and U-pick operations to write off donated fruit on their taxes. That made a huge dent in one grower’s tax bill, says Barbara Sayles, SOSA director for Florida and Georgia.
“It was a difference between paying taxes and not paying taxes,” Sayles says.
Sayles’ region is vital to SOSA gleaning efforts, providing 5 million pounds of the some 30 million pounds that make up the group’s national effort. Sayles says her group’s 5,000 volunteers harvest everything from citrus to peanuts. Some of the network’s farmers donate during times of down prices because they hate to see the produce go uneaten, or they are worried about what leftover produce in the fields and groves might do to next year’s production.
Other times, produce will come from research test fields, and some farmers will specifically plant a field to donate. One farmer recently planted 30 acres of turnips for SOSA Florida, and the organization had to hire a chef to give classes on how to utilize the root in everything from pancakes to coleslaw. Many food bank clients have had little exposure to fresh produce, so often they won’t know what to do with it, Sayles says.
“You have to teach people to eat better, too,” she says.
Volunteers a key ingredient
Gleaning networks are only as successful as their labor recruitment and coordination, and some have even taken to hiring veteran harvesters, Bloom says. Farmers often can’t find enough paid workers to harvest crops, and it’s hard to find volunteers willing and able to do the work. “You have to find volunteers who not only show up, but work hard,” Bloom says.
Lack of volunteers isn’t a problem for Food Forward, a Los Angeles-based gleaning network that harvests fruit trees in backyards and small groves in urban and suburban settings. Since Food Forward began in 2009, it has used social media to coordinate harvests, and coordinators scout out harvest sites to ensure a good volunteer experience. Now, the group has a waiting list for most of its harvest events, says Rick Nahmias, Food Forward’s executive director.
In addition to feeding the hungry, Food Forward wants to help people realize the forgotten bounty in their own backyards, Nahmias says. Many people forget that L.A. used to be thousands of acres of citrus groves. When they urbanized the area, developers often left a few trees standing in residential neighborhoods, and those trees still put out incredible amounts of fruit. A neglected grapefruit tree can produce more than a thousand pounds of fruit a year, he says. “We are in an area that is like a graveyard for those trees, which will produce fruit whether we pick them or not.”
Despite the labor-intensive effort, most volunteers return to pick again and again, because they experience the immediate impact of their labor, as the fruit will be in a hungry person’s hands within 24 hours, Nahmias says. “Once you start doing this work, it’s very hard to step away from it.”
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