Gleaning Fresh Food

Sharing the Harvest

Gleaning Fresh Food

Gleaning (gathering leftover crops after the harvest) is growing in popularity today. Many times, the food is given to those in need.

As the summer sun ripens this year’s bounty of fruits and vegetables, hundreds of volunteers are heading to fertile backyards and farm fields to glean and rescue precious food crops. Concern about sustainability, food security, waste, and a spirit of humanitarianism are fuelling this dedication.

What is gleaning?

Gleaning as a practice appears to date back to biblical times, according to a study for the Food Security Research Network called Understanding Gleaning by Sandrine Badio. In her study, Badio highlights gleaning’s ancient, historical, rural, and European roots and describes the traditional meaning of gleaning as “the gathering of leftover crops after the harvest.”

In contemporary times, the practice is experiencing a renaissance often on a grassroots, local, community level to help confront food security while feeding those in need.

As gleaning adapts to urban environments, it has come to also include the gathering of food from backyard gardens, city parks, farm fields, and even large food companies. While maximizing the incredible potential for locally available surplus produce, unmarketable but edible food is saved, helping people in need and reducing food waste.

In Canada, organizations such as the Ontario Association of Food Banks; the Delta, BC, Earthwise Farm; Fruit Share Manitoba; and the Fraser Valley Gleaners Society, among others, participate in gleaning.

“For our program, gleaning is the act of hand-picking fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers’ fields after the initial harvest,” says Amanda Finley King, from the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB).

“Oftentimes, there are thousands of pounds of perfectly healthy and edible fresh product left on farmers’ fields after the initial harvest, simply because they cannot be sold in the traditional marketplace. This is largely due to cosmetic reasons such as shape or size, despite the produce still being perfectly healthy and delicious.”

How is gleaning organized?

These gathering activities may adopt a variety of organizational formats. They will vary with each community to adapt to geographic locations, seasons, time of year, climate, products, and availability of labour. Groups may be ad hoc or operate as more formalized charitable societies.

“The OAFB coordinates volunteer groups with local farm partners to allow volunteers to pick available produce from their respective fields. This produce is then transported to the local food bank,” says Finley King.

Fruit Share Manitoba, with leadership from home economist Getty Stewart, developed a successful model for picking fruit by volunteers from homeowner yards—a plan recognized with a Sustainability Award.

Its online matchmaking service includes an automated Harvest Management System that allows the organization to easily and effectively manage coordination of when and where people will rescue fruit. The organization even created a complete “how to start” manual to share its experiences with others.

Fraser Valley Gleaners, based in Abbotsford, BC, came together as a community of people concerned about international hunger and the potential of local, unmarketable fresh produce. Fresh and frozen produce is picked up daily by volunteer drivers—food that is later dehydrated and converted into a just-add-water soup mix by volunteers.

Extensive volunteer contributions

Volunteers are the core of gleaning’s success. They contribute by donating their time and also raising awareness of both hunger and food insecurity. Volunteers might be picking, sorting, cleaning, packing, driving, or organizing. Many of these contemporary foraging arrangements were started by enthusiastic, committed individuals who continue to give hundreds of hours to keep this movement growing.

Fruit Share Manitoba increased from 10 volunteers in 2010 to 689 in 2013. “Fruit Share and gleaning is not just about rescuing surplus fruit,” emphasizes Stewart. “While that’s pretty impressive itself, it’s also about connecting people with local food and their community. It’s a way for people to experience the amazing variety of produce that we can grow in our own backyards.”

What food is saved?

Apples, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, rhubarb, nuts, berries—these are just a few of the foods being saved these days. Fruit Share Manitoba harvested 1,694 lbs (768 kg) of fruit in 2010, then increased to an incredible 10,946 lbs (4,965 kg) in 2013.

Ontario Association of Food Banks focuses on gleaning fresh fruits and vegetables, everything from potatoes and eggplant to apples and berries. Fraser Valley Gleaners rescues mainly vegetables from greenhouses, frozen food companies, and from vegetable and apple growers.

Food distribution

The destination of gleaned products depends on the goals of each gathering structure. Food may be sent directly from the farm to the local food bank for distribution to those in need. Picked fruit may be shared among fruit owners, volunteers, and charitable community organizations. Fraser Valley Gleaners is able to ship its dehydrated soup mix and apple snacks to 40 countries through global international relief agencies in countries such as Africa and India.

Impact of gleaning

Fraser Valley Gleaners processed 900 tonnes of vegetable produce creating 12.5 million servings shipped internationally in 2013. Farmers are also seeing benefits; for example, along with growers seeing more of their crops being saved, Ontario became the first Canadian province to pass a tax credit for farmers who donate produce to their local food banks.

Soup kitchens, seniors’ associations, daycares, youth groups, women’s shelters, and family centres are seeing gains. For example, Getty Stewart of Fruit Share Manitoba highlights the aid provided to six Manitoba community groups in 2010 and the increased assistance given to 33 groups in 2013.

“Through our workshops and online tools, people also learn cooking and preserving skills that are on the verge of being forgotten. We’re also helping people connect with their neighbours and experience that sense of coming together to help each other out.”

Earthwise Farm’s Shared Harvest

The organic Earthwise Farm operates on a three-acre site in Delta/Tsawwassen, BC. Along with the day-to-day operation of this organic farm, staff and volunteers participate in the Shared Harvest gleaning program. This farm serves as an important coordination centre by providing produce, a storage barn, administration, and distribution support for the area’s saved crops.

According to Patricia Fleming, executive director, community collaboration through the local Delta Food Coalition is key to the success of the program. “In Delta we are surrounded by farms, but there are people in our community not getting sufficient quantities of healthy food. Our gleaning is not just about putting food in someone’s mouth. It’s actually about putting ‘good food’ on their tables to encourage healthy choices.”

Getting involved

Interested individuals may contact food banks or food security groups to participate or start a gleaning project in their neighbourhood. Here are organizations to contact.

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