The ancient practice of gleaning is still relevant
A couple of months ago, I drove with three other women to a farm in Orient, New York. We were dressed warmly because we planned to spend the entire day outdoors, braving the North Fork winds. The air smelled clean after a day’s heavy rain. Each of us brought our own knives and work gloves, and I’d packed snacks.
We pulled up alongside the farm and saw beets and turnips lying on top of the soil, half-harvested cabbages and broccoli, and rows of cauliflower and sprouts. It was exactly what we were looking for. We were there to glean, or gather, surplus crops. To harvest what remains in the fields after farmers are done with market season, and donate it to food banks.
Gleaning is not a new idea. In fact, the concept dates back to the Old Testament, when farmers and large landowners were legally required to save a portion of their harvest for gleaners. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.” (Leviticus 19:9-10).
Gleaning organizations today, largely faith-based and nonprofit organizations, recover food from farms, restaurants, grocery stores, wholesale markets, and backyards. Among the best examples of what gleaning can accomplish is the Society of St. Andrew, which has been gleaning in the United States since 1983. Last year it gleaned and distributed more than 16 million pounds of fresh produce thanks to its more than thirty thousand volunteers.
The first thing we did once we got out of the car was divvy up the rows. Our group was organized by Mimi Edelman, of I & Me Farm in Orient. Through her work with farmer Tim Warner and the Terry family farm, we were given permission to pick through their fields and salvage what was left.
We quickly got to work and discovered overlooked sprouts, bunches of parsley, and heads of kale. “These are crops kissed by frost but still enlivened with essential nutrition,” said Mimi, bending down to expose the stems. “When gleaning for the hungry, one is mindful that each cut of the knife is a bite, a plate, a meal.” Working alongside Mimi taught me the importance of using everything the land provides.
I’d signed on to glean for a few reasons. The East End of Long Island is home to a number of small farms and supporting local business is fundamental to my philosophy around food. I also volunteer CAST, a food pantry that helps feed people in our community. The other big reason I headed into the fields is because I’m troubled by the amount of food we waste, even as millions go hungry.
About one-third of the food we waste is the result of buying too much of it, and throwing it away. Each of us wastes, on average 400 pounds of food every year, according to the National Resource Defense Council. Some of that is due to our love of eating out. Portion size has spiked over the last few decades, so much so that the food on your plate typically runs two to eight times the size of USDA and FDA standard serving sizes, which leaves a lot of—yes—waste. Because food thrown away at home and in restaurants has already been transported, stored, and usually cooked, this stage of waste results in a larger resource footprint than any other in the food supply chain.
The majority of the food we waste, however, takes place at the production and distribution level. Those unharvested cauliflowers and heads of broccoli I was looking at? Only a tiny bit of the estimated twenty billion pounds of food left in American fields after harvest. “A lot of food rots in fields,” says John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer of United Technologies, an engineering and refrigerated transport company. He says the other big contributing factors include inefficient transportation networks and poor storage.
The environmental cost of all our wasted food is enormous. Sixty seven percent of the freshwater used in this country is sucked up in the production of food and livestock. Additionally, 16 percent of the nation’s energy and almost half our land mass is dedicated to growing food. Of course all those resources are wasted, too, when the food they go towards producing is simply not eaten.
Food waste is also to blame for at least 2.6 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, or the equivalent of 37 million cars. Most of those gases are released in the course of growing the food but a portion is released as methane once the food starts rotting in landfills.
What can four women do?
More than 50 million people in the United States are food insecure, which means they don’t have easy access to nutritious food even as up to forty percent of food produced here goes uneaten. That’s a problem four women picking through the fields of a small farm on Long Island can’t solve.
But we can make a small dent in the problem, assures Mimi. “How does one even begin to make a difference?” she asks. “But putting one foot in front of the other.” By the time we’d left the fields, in cars loaded with cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, turnips, squash, parsley, and kale, I found myself so energized by the experience I focused on the difference we were able to make.
We looked for nutrition, not perfection. The push for perfect looking produce results in a lot of it being wasted, since ugly fruit and vegetables are the first to get left behind. Our job was to peel back leaves and unearth healthy heads of cauliflower and broccoli. Mimi showed us how to run a finger across the surface and feel for density. Without someone to sort the healthy produce from the spoiled, this food would be left to fallow. Note: Check out Imperfect Produce, Hungry Harvest, or Misfits Market if you want to help reduce food waste by signing up for imperfect looking produce that’s perfectly nutritious.
We got the goods to the right place, quickly. Once we’d finished gathering two hundred pounds of produce, we brought it directly to CAST, our local food pantry. Food all too often expires during transportation.Truck accidents, malfunctioning refrigeration units, and delays on loading docks shorten the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. Many nonprofit agencies feed hundreds of clients, yet they don’t have access to fresh produce, nor the means to collect and distribute it. But our crew made the trip from field to food pantry in ten minutes flat!
Our vegetables fed a lot of people. The crew at CAST was so eager to get our load of veggies they started bagging them from the parking lot. We helped carry in the remaining food and were thanked by everyone who saw us. I spent some time afterward organizing the pantry fridge to show off our colorful bounty. As clients picked through, I could overhear their excitement. Voices in English and Spanish swapped recipes for dinner and the immediate impact of our efforts was plain to see. “We serve about 200 households per week,” Cathy Demeroto, executive director of CAST told me, “and they’re very appreciative of having the fresh local produce that they otherwise would not be able to access.”
As we finally parted ways, we told Mimi we planned to join the next gleaning expedition. In the meantime, I’m working on fine-tuning my next way to tackle food waste. I’ve got my composting tumbler set up now. All I have to do is remember to spin it a few times a week. One foot in front of the other.
Takeaways: Want to start taking charge of food waste in your own community? Below are some resources to help you get started.
CAST, Community Action Southold Town, Inc. Not only do they include a food pantry, but they also support education, advocacy, and outreach where we live. Look out for small nonprofits that address food recovery in your area!
CompostNow makes at-home and at-work composting easy. They’ll do all the heavy lifting for you. All you have to do is watch what you waste.
Spoiler Alert helps food manufacturers, wholesale distributors, and grocery retailers manage their food waste in more effective ways.
Food Forward connects nonprofits focused on food rescue to volunteers eager to glean!
Feeding America is an expansive network of member food banks all across the country. Through this resource, you can find your nearest place to donate.
The Food Recovery Network is a student movement fighting food waste and hunger in America. They have chapters in 44 states and Washing D.C. Click to see how you can get involved.
Growing Perennial Foods: A field guide to raising resilient herbs, fruits, and vegetables is the perfect guide for gardeners eager to do their part in combatting climate change. On sale now.