Scavenging in a world of plenty
ILLUSTRATIONS BY LUCY ENGELMAN
On a sultry July morning, John King, owner of Royal Acres Farm in Middletown, has just finished loading 1,000 pounds of bok choy from his fields onto a refrigerated box truck. The meticulously grown greens are not going to any of his 100 CSA customers, nor are they being driven to a local farmers market—the two main sales outlets for his crops. That truck parked in his driveway is known as the Gleanmobile and at the wheel is Stiles Najac, food security coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County.
“The markets have been really slow this year and the weather’s unpredictable,” King says about his surplus of produce. “It doesn’t help us financially to donate it, but it helps our karma to do something for the community.”
Doing something for the community is at the root of gleaning, an ancient practice mentioned in both the Torah and the Bible. These sacred texts dictate that farmers should refrain from harvesting every corner of their fields and picking every grape on their vines, so that “the poor and the alien” might avail themselves of the leavings. In Jean-François Millet’s classic 1857 oil painting, The Gleaners (Des glaneuses), three women are depicted collecting the few remaining stalks of wheat in a sprawling field. It’s a powerful rendition of the brutal reality of peasant life in rural 19th-century France.
Eventually, the tradition of gleaning was replaced by government systems of welfare, but there’s a growing movement in this country to revive and modernize gleaning as a means of addressing chronic food waste and food insecurity. More often now it’s referred to as “food rescue.”
Eventually, the tradition of gleaning
was replaced by a more institutionalized system
of welfare, but there’s a growing movement
in this country to revive and modernize it
as a means of addressing
chronic food waste
and food insecurity.
According to a USDA study released last year, “In the United States, 31 percent (133 billion pounds) of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels went uneaten in 2010.” A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans toss a whopping 52 percent of the country’s fruits and vegetables—more than any other food group—and that a significant part of that loss occurs before the produce ever leaves the field.
In part, the waste is due to the market demand for perfect specimens, those unblemished apples and symmetrical carrots shoppers have come to expect. Other countries, including France, have responded to this issue by rebranding ugly produce to prevent it from going into landfills. Intermarché, France’s third-largest supermarket, launched a wildly successful campaign glamorizing “inglorious fruits and vegetables.” The UK and Portugal have followed with similar initiatives to promote eating misshapen produce.
On the home front, Najac, a tall, energetic woman with a sunny disposition—along with her Gleanmobile and a rotating cadre of volunteers—rescues produce that would otherwise go to waste and transports it quickly and efficiently to those who need food most. On the receiving end of Royal Acres’ bok choy is the Regional Economic Community Action Program (RECAP) in Middletown, plus two food pantries and a community health center in Port Jervis, where they stage a little farm stand in the waiting room to give away the produce.
“Farmers frequently lack the time and the manpower to deal with their excess harvest or market leftovers, and food pantries and soup kitchens can be selective about when and where they’ll accept deliveries,” says Najac. “We do everything possible to remove any barriers to the process.” This year alone the Gleanmobile initiative will help mobilize 250,000 pounds of produce in the Hudson Valley, including some from farms that plant crops specifically for donation.
REAPING THE CASTOFFS
Unfamiliarity can be another barrier to the favorable reception of rescued food. Kohlrabi, with its swollen and bulbous appearance, is not always welcomed with open arms in the emergency food system, and even a purple carrot might arouse suspicion from someone who has never seen one. When farmers’ staggered plantings succumb to unpredictable weather, a sudden enormous windfall of rescued radishes means coming up with recipe suggestions for soup kitchens reluctant to take on even slightly unusual vegetables. Najac tells a story about one food pantry manager who rejected a delivery of okra because it wasn’t familiar to her. Meanwhile, there was a woman standing in line who burst into tears at the mere sight of it. “It was something she had grown up eating,” remembers Najac, “and she was so grateful to have it again.”
Providing nutrition education and resources is a core mandate for City Harvest, an Orange County organization founded in 1982 that works exclusively within New York City. According to communications manager Samantha Park, the group’s mission has expanded beyond rescuing food—this year they will distribute 55 million pounds, more than half of it fresh produce—to addressing hunger’s root causes and its relationship to health. Volunteers from culinary schools offer lessons for families, seniors and teens on everything from how to cook with kids to enticing preparations for rutabagas and beets.
Gleaning is a grassroots movement founded on the hard work of countless volunteers. City Harvest has 160 full-time employees, yet still relies on volunteers to fill more than 14,000 opportunities every year. Not only are these unpaid helpers planting and harvesting in the fields, they’re cleaning produce, boxing it up and even helping to deliver it. Volunteers usually include all kinds of people, girl scouts and honor students as well as those exiting the prison system.
Many volunteers, like Lynne Snyder, who witnessed chronic waste and inequity during her years working in commercial and institutional food service, have come to embrace food security as a personal mission. Now a master gardener and food educator, Snyder finds volunteering in food rescue to be incredibly fun and rewarding. “You’re going to be working and sweating,” she says, “but you’ll see the immediate results when people get to eat the fruits of your labor.”
Many people find themselves gleaning fields for the first time thanks to UlsterCorps, a countywide organization based in Stone Ridge that connects people who want to do community service with volunteer opportunities, is almost entirely run by workers donating their time. According to director Beth McLendon, there’s something about preventing food waste and feeding hungry people that draws out would-be volunteers more than any other type of work.
McLendon’s dream is to one day own a refrigerated truck like Najac’s Gleanmobile, but for the moment UlsterCorps is focused on creating food storage hubs, including one in a former school with a walk-in refrigerator. “It’s tricky for food pantries to keep large quantities of produce on hand,” explains McLendon, “but if we can manage to store it locally, transportation becomes less of an issue and food stays fresher.”
One of the many positive effects of our modern food revolution is a greater awareness of where our food comes from and where it goes—or doesn’t go. Twenty percent of this country does not consistently have food on the table, yet vast quantities of uneaten food end up rotting in landfills, off-gassing methane that contributes to climate change.
Faced with these facts, it’s easy to see why more and more people want to fight food waste and end hunger, especially when that means spending a few hours in the fresh air with your hands in the dirt. To some, that’s hard work. To a latter-day gleaner, it’s an act of love.
“It doesn’t help us financially
to donate,but it helps our karma to
do something for the community.”
If you are interested in getting involved in the local gleaning effort, below are organizations that play a leadership role in the movement to channel and distribute the remnants of the harvest:
Cornell Cooperative Extension