Gleaning. The word may not be immediately recognizable to many, and that’s probably because it hasn’t been a practice of most Americans for a long, long time—maybe ever. Gleaning, in the world of agriculture and food, refers to the practice of collecting leftover or excess food—from fields, but also from farmers markets, supermarkets, and community gardens. The term also encompasses “freeganism” or supermarket “dumpster diving.”
It’s far from just a hip new trend. As far back as Old Testament times, the ancient Deuteronomic Code instructed Israelites to leave parts of their fields unharvested for widows, orphans and strangers to pick. And in the New Testament book of Matthew, even Jesus and his disciples did it.
But given the presence of millions of hungry bellies and the reality that half the food produced in America is wasted, many are giving gleaning a 21st century makeover. Amid a recession that has driven poverty levels to a 46-year high, a growing number of people have resorted to visiting food banks for nourishment. This means food pantry shelves are often more bare than usual.
For years, a national faith-based gleaning organization has stepped in to help food banks and other hunger relief organizations when individual donations don’t fill the shelves. The Society of St. Andrew utilizes tens of thousands of volunteers to “rescue” over 600,000,000 pounds of unused produce annually, distributing it widely in almost every state. In 2011, the organization saved almost 27 million pounds of food, which translates to over 80 million servings.
Even the federal government is starting to look at gleaning as a method for feeding people and reducing waste. United We Serve, the nationwide service initiative created after the recent economic downturn, recently published a gleaning toolkit, titled “Let’s Glean!”
And at the state level, a new organization is laying the groundwork for perhaps the most comprehensive and holistic gleaning network yet. Salvation Farms, which in October freed itself from the Vermont Foodbank, is working to “scale up” gleaning across the state and implant it firmly into the larger food system. It will do this, says founding and executive director Theresa Snow, by forming partnerships with organizations and becoming a “surplus clearinghouse” to serve them.
“Most of the work being done in VT are poster projects, side projects—but are they making the difference that they could?” she says. “We’re taking a bigger, broader scope. How do we as an organization support organizations that are regionally located around Vermont to increasing their efficiency and effectiveness?”
If you’d like to donate to or volunteer with a gleaning program near you, reference this list of programs throughout the U.S.
Should we be gleaning more of our food to combat hunger and waste?
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter