In the weeks 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?”
Now, I would consider my network of family and friends to be a food conscious, environmentally aware bunch: farmers market enthusiasts, community-supported agriclture (CSA) supporters, local food devotees. Yet only a few knew what gleaning was. And truth is, before applying for my current position, neither did I.
For those of you who are in the dark, as I once was, gleaning is more or less 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 deserves such a place setting, and here’s why:
Hunger is a huge problem in the United States. Currently, one in six people struggle to access and maintain a nutritious diet. Within the San Luis Valley, about one in four families utilize the Food Bank Network. Food pantries do not need more baked good donations, they need produce.
Ironically, many of the most food-insecure states in the nation, such as Mississippi, possess agriculturally based-economies. Indeed, in the agriculturally-dependent San Luis Valley, the poverty rate hovers around 25 percent, almost double Colorado’s average.
In the U.S. 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.
Often, low-income residents of agricultural areas can’t even access such monocrops; the modern food system distances people from their food. Though 90 percent of Colorado’s potatoes are grown in the San Luis Valley, most of the potatoes found in local supermarkets are from Idaho. Though potatoes litter county roads during harvest time, clients call the Food Bank daily to see if we have papas to give out.
As the Emergency Food Network suggests, we must harness the valuable geographical location of such agricultural areas to feed with the bounty of the county. No resident of Iowa should ever go without a cob of corn; no San Luis Valley inhabitant should ever struggle to acquire a bag of potatoes. When our food system fails us, gleaning can bring nutritious food from local sources to those who otherwise could not afford it.
An equally large and increasingly interconnected problem to hunger in our country is food waste. A 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report estimates that approximately 40 perecent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten each year.
Part of this annual waste is the 7 percent 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, a lack of labor, and speedy harvesting, to name a few.
Solving hunger in the U.S. 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/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 U.S., 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 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 and 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.
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 Hwy-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 that I had watched school kids, senior citizens, 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.