Gleaners ‘Rescue’ Food for the Hungry

During harvest time, potatoes litter the side of the roads in southern Colorado. Yet families struggle to maintain an adequate diet. The age-old practice of gleaning helps food pantries take advantage of agricultural areas’ bounty and raise awareness of hunger and food waste.

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After I decided to move to southern Colorado and accept a position as a gleaning/food bank coordinator for the Food Bank Network of the San Luis Valley, family and friends repeatedly asked me one question:

“What in the world is gleaning?”

My family and friends are food conscious and environmentally aware. They are farmers market enthusiasts, community-supported-agriculture supporters, local food devotees. Yet only a few knew what gleaning was. And truth is, before applying for my current position, neither did I.

Gleaning is the collecting of crops from a farmer’s field after he or she has harvested. This could mean going into a field after a harvest machine or agricultural laborers’ speedy work. Or it could even mean harvesting a field that is not economically worth the farmer’s time.

Though gleaning has deep historical and religious roots, today it is primarily practiced by food rescue groups. As food insecurity (and conversely food waste) in the United States remain high, gleaning provides a viable way for food banks to provide produce to clientele while reducing waste.

So, why is this phenomenon not better known? Why is there no place at the table for the term gleaning amid the feast of buzzwords like locavore, food justice, organic, free-range and fair trade that find a way into our headlines and grocery stores?

Gleaning surely deserves such a place setting.

Hunger is a huge problem in the United States. One in six people struggle to maintain a nutritious diet. Within the San Luis Valley, about one in four families use the Food Bank Network.

Ironically, many of the most food-insecure states, such as Mississippi, have agriculturally based economies. Indeed, in the agriculturally dependent San Luis Valley, the poverty rate hovers around 25%, almost double Colorado’s average.

Photo by Rachel Woolworth
Gleaning potatoes in Colorado's San Luis Valley.

In the United States’ industrially based food system, monoculture reigns. Living on a farm or in an agricultural area does not equate to having a nutritionally balanced food intake — one cannot live solely off of corn, soy or even potatoes.

Yet often, low-income residents of agricultural areas can’t even get access to such monocrops. The modern food system distances people from their food. Though 90% of the Colorado’s potatoes are grown in the San Luis Valley, most of the potatoes found in local supermarkets are from Idaho. Though potatoes literally litter the sides of the county roads during harvest time, clients call the Food Bank daily to see if we have papas to give out.

When our food system fails us, gleaning can bring nutritious food from local sources to those who otherwise could not afford it. This is especially true in agriculturally productive areas.

An equally large and increasingly interconnected problem to hunger is food waste. A 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council report estimates that approximately 40% of food in the United States goes uneaten each year.

Part of this annual waste is the 7% of produce that never even leaves farms. These farm losses are due to a variety of factors: the high aesthetic standards of store-bought produce, over planting combined with a lack of labor, and speedy harvesting, to name a few.

Solving hunger in the United States isn’t about producing more food. It is about aggregating it more effectively. Gleaning does just that.

A less tangible, but equally important benefit of gleaning is its unique power to educate communities about food issues, thereby strengthening local food systems

While gleaning, volunteers are able to see potential food waste first hand and experience the joy of harvesting and “rescuing” food. Gleaning also provides volunteers with an opportunity to talk to farmers and food organization representatives about agriculture and food security in their area.

Before my gleaning outings I would lead a discussion on hunger in the United States, food waste and the ins and outs of our food-pantry system. This often provoked further questions from volunteers while out in the fields, and it made gleaners more likely to donate to the food pantry in the future. In one instance, a church group contacted me a week later asking for the statistics I highlighted in order to lead a similar discussion at their church.

Gleaning also initiates or further strengthens important relationships between farmers and food organizations. Such communication often leads to large-scale produce donations or alerts about bountiful gleaning possibilities. Additionally, hosting gleaners is likely to make farmers more aware of their own waste.

In the big picture of food rescue, the pounds of produce gleaned annually are relatively insignificant. Yet on a small scale, the 10,000 pounds of potatoes and carrots gleaned within our Food Bank Network this fall were quite the opposite of insignificant — they allowed us to keep up with seemingly insatiable demand. But regardless of poundage, gleaning goes far as an education and publicity tool for food rescue organizations.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Woolworth
The author with potato farmers and gleaning pals Galen, left, and Brian Harrison.

Gleaning is currently an underutilized win-win for all parties involved. Farmers get their fields cleared and in some states a tax write off. Volunteers get to connect with their potentially religious or agrarian roots and commune with nature, all while helping others and learning about food issues firsthand. Food pantries are supplied with local produce they would otherwise not be able to afford. And clientele have access to nutritious food for themselves and their loved ones.

As I speed down Highway 160 on my commute to work, sandwiched between miles and miles of potato fields and the towering Spanish Peaks, I often visualize the potatoes we gleaned being cooked in someone else’s kitchen. I see the spuds I watched school kids and senior citizens and families and friends alike pick out of the dirt, boiling or baking into warm, delicious sustenance for young and old. Yet I also visualize the millions of potatoes we didn’t get to, laying in the trenches of tractor wheels as the dark cold sets in, with no oven to warm them and no bellies to fill.

Rachel Woolworth is an Americorps volunteer working with the Food Bank Network of San Luis Valley in Colorado.

 

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