No Crop Left Behind: Gleaning for a Food Secure Future

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Photo Credit: Boston Area Gleaners

As we approach the first frost and the end of the growing season, it’s appropriate to reflect on how lucky we are to live in New England, where many of us still live close enough to farms to buy locally grown produce.  But for more than two million New Englanders, buying any food, let alone local food, is not a sure thing. Fortunately, there are organizations striving to make access to fresh produce a reality for all.

A long time ago, before they had their own farm, Shelley Dare Smith brought her husband lunch to the farm where he worked.  “He was out in a field of a couple acres, with the tractor and a big cardboard container on the bucket, picking peppers,” she recalls.  “He was leaving a lot in the field and I asked why; he said it was ‘lost harvest’, not worth the time and money it would take to bring it in with no market for it.  He said it would be tilled back into the soil.” 

“It was like a knife to my heart seeing all that food out there, going to waste,” says Dare Smith, who is now the gleaning coordinator for Rockingham and Strafford counties in New Hampshire, under the NH Gleans program.  “A lot of people can’t afford fresh produce, and there it was, left to rot.  On our own farm, now, we do the best we can, but there are times when we have to leave one crop behind as we turn to a new crop,” she says.  

That’s where gleaning, an ancient practice of collecting such “lost harvest,” comes in.

Recently, “food rescue” and plans to combat “food insecurity” have made headlines as the Obama Administration issues new rules to reduce the amount of food being discarded from supermarkets and restaurants and as the Food Solutions New England’s “New England Food Vision”, which calls for 50 percent of the food consumed in the region to be produced here by 2060, catches on. According to the Boston Globe, “all six New England states have embarked on developing their own individual food plans. Vermont’s is the most advanced, having been released in 2011. Rhode Island followed soon after. New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts are expected to issue draft plans this year.”  

All of which is good news for the more than 15 percent of New England residents who are “food insecure,” meaning they are unsure of when and from where their next meal will come.  That insecurity may be a result of poverty or other complications, like living in “food deserts” without public transportation and few food outlets, or both.  And fresh produce is particularly hard to come by for those in need, since it tends to be more expensive and more difficult to get to, according to Bart Westdijk, Program Director of the New England Grassroots Environment Fund (NEGEF), which supports a number of organizations and community groups engaged in solving the problem of a food deficit in the region.

“These groups and many others enable an organized approach to ensuring that food is not left to rot in the field when there are people who need it,” he says. “They garner a critical aspect of social capital, getting volunteers out on the farms, to farmers’ markets and even into restaurants and grocery stores to make sure we are getting the 30 to 40 percent of food that is otherwise wasted, to consumers.”

Most of the “rescue” focus has been on the “back end” of the food system—salvaging what’s going to be thrown away by commercial food sellers and even consumers.  But organizations like Vermont’s Salvation Farms and Massachusetts’ Boston Area Gleaners, which have both received grants from the Grassroots Fund, focus on getting crops that would otherwise be lost to those who are least able to obtain fresh, local produce.

Salvation Farms and Boston Area Gleaners (BAG) began collecting food from farm fields in 2004.  For BAG, it started when Oakes Plimpton, who had community-farm and gleaning experience with Food for Free, harvested a few rows of “overripe beets” at an organic farm in Stow, MA.  By 2014, BAG had “delivered over 1.88 million servings (470,000+ lbs.) of fresh local produce” to people in need in Massachusetts, primarily through the Food for Free network, according to Laurie “Duck” Caldwell, Executive Director.

“In August of this year, we harvested more volume than we did in the first eight months of 2014, so our volume is up tremendously” Caldwell reports.  “That’s because we have built more capacity.” The challenge, Caldwell says, is to continue to do that, which entails not just the actual work in the field, but “establishing relations with farms, making sure we have vehicle drivers, volunteers to glean, all of the infrastructure you need for this kind of volunteer organization.”  And that, she says, takes money.

“We really need to figure out a sustainable way to do this,” she says. “When I talk to people about what we do, they are very supportive and enthusiastic about it, naturally.  But we have to find a way to harvest that enthusiasm in the form of financial support.”

Caldwell says there are some 1,000 farms in eastern Massachusetts, but BAG is able to work with only about 50.  “We could use money,” she suggests, “just to do a study of the potential of what a difference it could make if we were able to provide that much more fresh food locally.  But we are dealing with the constraint of money for staff and infrastructure.”

“That’s one of the things we need to fund,” says Salvation Farms’ Executive Director Theresa Snow, “the research and the economic analysis, to be able to get the qualitative data that proves the economic impact, on the farmer and the state, of building an educated base of eaters.”  

Snow believes the political and institutional will to change the system will come once people understand the economic affect of volunteer gleaning coupled with money that stays in the region rather than being lost to the purchase of cheap food from out of state.  “So we could use funds to study what happens when we source surplus in-state commodity crops as a substitute for traditional commercial food sourcing.”  

Figuring out the whole infrastructure picture, what the food system needs to look like in order to take best advantage of surplus, is a big part of the work of Salvation Farms, Snow says.  “We use food as a tool to engage people in the food system,” she says, taking “a systems approach, working on integrating all the parts, leveraging and connecting resources to reduce food loss.
 
“We are piloting concepts where surplus farm food is cleaned, quality assessed, and case packed, so that institutions can use it.  In addition to raw packing, we have also done some minimal processing, creating frozen food products with crops that were not suitable for raw distribution,” she adds. “We’ve created more than 10,000 servings of frozen gleaned fruits and vegetables since 2012.”

That “systems approach” has meant venturing out of the farm fields to look at other parts of the surplus-food infrastructure, Snow explains. Most of their harvesting is done through the Vermont Gleaning Collective, comprising five regionally-based, autonomous organizations committed to “increasing the region’s food independence and security,” she says, adding “together we are capturing as much as 250,000 lbs. per year and are barely making a dent in the available surplus” in Vermont. 

Complementing their work with the members of the Vermont Gleaning Collective, Salvation Farms ran a successful raw packing operation at the Southeast Vermont State Correctional Facility. “Over the course of two and a half years we processed just under 300,000 pounds of quality crops that would have gone uneaten,” says Snow, who personally supervised the work of some 50 inmates.

“It was a very powerful experience for me,” she says. “I worked directly with the men, training and overseeing the operation, and I feel incredibly privileged to have had that opportunity.” Salvation Farms hopes to duplicate that process in another community, she says.

“The elements involved in getting an operation like that up and running in the community are like setting up any other business: finding the right building, satisfying permitting requirements, identifying workforce development populations and partners, covering overhead costs….” It takes money. 

“We are pleased the Grassroots Fund has been able to make several contributions to the work of Salvation Farms, Boston Area Gleaners and also Community Harvest of Central Vermont, for whom we also provide fiscal sponsorship,” says Westdijk.  “Their work, both in the fields and the supply chain and in helping to figure out how we can make better use of all the food we produce, is critical.”  Over the past ten years, Boston Area Gleaners has received five grants to support various improvements in their operations, and Salvation Farms received three grants, including, most recently, a Grow grant to support the work with inmates at the correctional facility packing operation.

In New Hampshire, an anonymous donor, through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, supports the activities of the county gleaning coordinators, augmenting the funding from the state’s Farm to School program.  But harvest still requires volunteers to show up in the field and pick.  Coordinators are responsible for making sure the produce gets to outlets like pantries and soup kitchens.

“An important part of our role is this middle position where we actually get the food to the pantries,” Dare Smith says of New Hampshire operations. A big part of the coordinators’ jobs is keeping track of “which pantries are open on what days and which ones can refrigerate produce and how much volume each pantry can handle.  

“We try to take food to the pantry nearest to where it came from, to keep it local and fresher.  But we can’t always do that because we don’t know on a day-to-day basis where the produce is going to come from; the nearest pantry may not be open or have space or refrigeration that day,” she explains, adding that on a given weekend “we fill three huge refrigerators at the food pantry in Portsmouth after the farmers’ market there on Saturday.”

So flexibility, being able to respond to a call from a farmer, and having a network of outlets available to receive the food, are all parts of the job.  But it starts with training volunteers in the field, because picking the right thing at the right time is of vital importance to the relationship with the farmers, Caldwell notes. “Our volunteers go out with staff right away to be trained in the field.  That’s to protect the farm and the farmers, who have liability concerns, concerns about the size of gleaning groups, that the individuals we bring onto their farms are appropriate,” she says. “Most of the farms we work with are 10 acres or less.  They are diversifying crops, and often you really have to pay attention to what you are picking and where you are because crops can change row to row.  So staff supervision is important in the field and for communication with the farmer.”

George Gross, at Dog River Farm in Berlin, VT, began allowing gleaners from Salvation Farms into his fields two years ago and while he still worries some about legal issues if someone is injured, “it makes me feel good to know the product is not going to waste. “We used to do it [gleaning] ourselves, my crew culling off the pack line,” Gross says.  But there was a cost in time and money, and now opening the farm to volunteer gleaners allows him to give back without that added overhead.

It is a common understanding that farms start to see the benefit of gleaning when trained volunteers come in and harvest what farmers would otherwise have to leave, particularly if that keeps a field productive and plants producing for the time when there is a market for that crop.  But getting to that understanding isn’t always a simple process.

It’s important, Snow says, that the work of gleaners be seen by everyone, including farmers, as “an agricultural activity, not charitable, and part of the farm business.  That can only be done if it is professionally run and properly equipped to serve the farm. Then it will be really viable and meaningful,” she adds. “The chief role of staff is to build relations with farmers and to recruit volunteers.  Our work is really all about building relationships, earning the trust of the farmers and insuring the people we work with in agencies that we can get the food to them effectively,” according to Caldwell.

“When we can come in with volunteers, that is of course the easiest way for the farmers,” Dare Smith points out, “because they don’t have to devote extra time and resources—which is why these crops aren’t getting to market anyway.  But they are not necessarily ready to have strangers in their fields picking their crops, so it helps that I am a farmer and they trust me to do it right and treat their crops and fields the right way.”  

BAG’s Caldwell notes that building trust with farmers is a crucial part of the role of organizations like hers and Snow’s.  Without that trust, a critical link is broken.“We provide the mechanism to harvest and get food to the market, a vital link in the supply chain.  Food insecurity, that people are not getting the nutrition they need and may not know where their next meal is coming from, is a big challenge, but we don’t need to put more resources into growing food. We produce enough.  But farmers have economic pressures that keep them from getting food to market,” Caldwell explains, because they can’t afford to harvest what they are not going to sell. “We are providing a public service that every community should be concerned about, keeping this activity going and providing food for people,” she points out. 

“Gleaning is seen by many as a cute, charitable activity,” Snow notes.  “We need state agencies and legislators to take a clear stance and say ‘we don’t waste locally grown food when we could use that food to feed our children, elders, incarcerated, and hungry.’ Our leaders need to realize the value in recovering these crops, the social, environmental, and economic impact.  We need the political and philanthropic will to make the necessary funds available to support proactively and responsibly managing farm surplus foods, understood as part of the food system, not a marginal charitable activity,” Theresa Snow says, adding simply: “Doing this will help us all have a more food secure future.” 

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