“I’m always surprised when I meet someone who knows what gleaning is,” says Usha Thakrar, Interim Executive Director of Boston Area Gleaners (BAG). The organization works out of an institutional building in Waltham, Massachusetts, home of Waltham Community Farms and the birthplace of several ubiquitous varieties of grocery store produce. Thakrar started working with the Gleaners as a volunteer at her local food pantry, which receives fresh produce from the organization. She now leads the staff in their goal to rescue one million pounds of fresh produce from farms this year.
As a practice, gleaning is thousands of years old, and is referred to in ancient Hebrew and Christian texts. Leviticus, Deuteronomy and the Book of Ruth all reference a mandate to bless “the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow” with the work of the farmer’s hands. Historically, gleaning served as a form of old-world social security; farmers would open their fields after their initial harvest for anyone in the community to pick up dropped or unpicked produce.
Gleaning became less popular after industrialization, as harvesting became more efficient and produced less waste. Technology standardized spacing between mechanical rows, leading to less wasted crop, and the rise of food safety and individual property laws de-incentivized farmers from allowing strangers into their fields.
But gleaning has seen a resurgence in recent years as a solution to two growing and co-current problems: food waste and food insecurity. The USDA estimates that almost twelve percent of American households suffered from food insecurity in 2017. Meanwhile, somewhere between twenty to forty percent of food grown on U.S. farms is never harvested. The wide range for this statistic exists because farm-level food waste is difficult to quantify, and has only recently been investigated. A 2017 study of farms in California found an average thirty-one percent wasted yield across twenty types of crops, while a similar study in North Carolina found an average of forty-two percent yield wasted across eight different crops. In the case of romaine hearts, the California study recorded 113 percent food waste, because the outer (perfectly edible) part of the plant was discarded in the fields to create the end product. Today, it is also likely that food is overlooked during harvest because it is no longer economically favorable for the farmer to harvest it themselves.
As this ancient practice has evolved into a modern social justice movement, organizations have stepped in to create resources and education about food waste reduction. The largest and oldest gleaning organization in the country, Society of St. Andrews, started practicing food rescue in 1982. The Society salvages about twenty million pounds of produce annually with the help of forty thousand volunteers in interconnected networks across the continental United States. The USDA published a “Let’s Glean!” toolkit in 2010 as gleaning began to emerge as a popular food rescue technique once again. In 2014, the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School created The National Gleaning Project, which currently has 316 gleaning organizations recorded in forty-five states and the District of Columbia.
Changing market demands, a bumper crop, or high labor costs can all force farmers to make the difficult choice to leave perfectly viable produce in their fields, making the food so costly it’s far simpler to plow under and start again. Most of the food gleaning organizations rescue isn’t B grade; it is farmer’s market grade produce the farmer simply cannot sell in time. Gleaning offers farmers an opportunity for something to come from their countless hours of labor, not to mention the cost of irrigation, pesticides and seeds to grow their crops. “The economics of farming are complicated,” explains Thakrar. “The marketplace is very competitive, the margins are tiny, the quality standards are exacting, and the taxes and the incentives—it’s just not an industry that is well supported in our culture.”
She continues that a major part of the mission is reminding communities where their food comes from. Growers pre-plan their crop and tend to it for weeks or months; they cannot simply make changes as the market swings. Market price directly informs how much of the crop is harvested, as money for labor hours quickly negates the value of harvesting produce the market isn’t looking for. The plants may be the wrong size or wrong shape for the farmer’s contract with a processor or distributor. The crop may reach peak ripeness at the wrong time of year for the marketplace (it’s hard to get excited about apples in August, before the chill of autumn calls for spiced cobbler and bubbling pie). There may be a surplus due to excellent growing conditions, but demand does not change at the whim of the weather.
Under the 1969 Tax Reform Act, the federal government offers a tax incentive to farmers for donating their crops to food rescue organizations, but they get more than simple financial rebates. “They’ve put a lot into growing these crops: sweat, labor, money, so they’re happy to see it go to good use,” says Dylan Frazier, Director of Operations for BAG. Frazier chooses his words carefully, speaks quietly, and wears work boots and a Carhartt jacket at his desk overlooking the fields of Waltham Community Farms.
Gleaning organizations could not exist without farmers trusting them to care for their land, harvest correctly, and avoid damage to any marketable crop while they are there. “When there is a crop, we need to get in there and execute at a high level, so that we get invited back,” says Frazier. He or another staff member attends every glean, ensuring volunteers are properly trained in food safety and handling, as well as in quality expectations for each crop. Many gleaners consider the relationships with their farmers the backbone of their organizations, especially because they often have to work hard to earn a farmer’s trust. There are laws to protect farmers who donate to food rescue organizations “in good faith” from food safety litigation, but they are fraught with undefined terms and unclear wording that complicate the farmers’ liability in these cases, making donations that much more difficult to agree to.
While building relationships with farmers and harvesting crops are integral, modern gleaning relies heavily on logistics. “Getting the food out of the fields is the easier part,” assures Frazier. Coordinating the transport of fragile, perishable produce from hesitant farmers to under-resourced relief agencies with inconsistent distribution schedules using mostly volunteer labor, and with too little or no storage capacity at multiple links in the chain, is not an easy task. “Food pantries are not like Walmart,” Andy Lemmon of the Society of St. Andrew explains. “They don’t open at eight a.m. and close at five p.m. Monday through Friday. A lot of food pantries are run by volunteers who set up a food safe area in a classroom at their church. They’re only open maybe one day a month, or one day a week.”
Gleaning organizations are important middlemen, linking food waste reduction and food insecurity relief efforts in an ebb and flow of collection and distribution. Charlotte Border, Operations Manager for BAG, manages the company’s flow of food. “We spend the weekend really pulling in product, and then midweek, we’re getting it out there,” she says. “By the end of the weekend, not only is our space shoved full, but we have great variety.” Because they have access to cold storage, the Boston Area Gleaners operate differently than other organizations. They allow their partners to order what produce they want from that variety, rather than simply offering what was harvested that day to the organization best suited to take it. “We cycle the inventory in less then a week every week,” Border says. “We don’t hold anything. We always clear the deck and then start again.”
For any of these types of organizations, there is no shortage of agencies looking to take rescued food. But it requires significant organization to ensure the right food gets to the places it will do the most good, and in time for it to be distributed to the people who need it before it is no longer viable. “I never have trouble giving away food; that’s not the hard part of what we do. The hard part is coordinating resources in time,” Lemmon says. “A lot of times the food we get early in the morning is in the hands of recipients that day.” It requires intimate knowledge not only of their farmers’ crops, but of food relief agencies’ needs, schedules and storage capacities to be able to harvest, transport and distribute this food while racing the ticking clock of perishability.
Gleaning is a communal, collaborative space. “It’s not a competitive space,” Usha claims. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of people doing the work.” Volunteers range from recent retirees to college grads to Girl Scout troops. Generally, they volunteer because they are excited to get outside and spend time in the fields, and are happy to see their labor go to good use. Sometimes, they volunteer after receiving food assistance themselves. The spirit of the commons is clear in the coordinated efforts of these organizations, working to clear farmers’ fields, clean out their coolers, and fill cupboards with fresh food. Solving two major issues in today’s food system is akin to feeding multitudes with seven loaves and two fishes; look hard enough and there always seems to be more to go around.