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Food Recovery Q&A

An interview with Theresa Snow of Salvation Farms on ‘gleaning’ and agricultural surplus management

by Laurie “Duck” Caldwell

While many people across the Northeast are working to increase local food production, there are a handful of organizations focused on capturing the surplus and making it available to the most vulnerable people in their communities: the poor, the sick, and the elderly.  As a result, an ancient practice called gleaning – the harvesting of remaining surplus – is experiencing a resurgence.  For example, one such group, the Boston Area Gleaners (BAG), gleans the farms surrounding its large metropolitan area and delivers the produce to emergency food providers in the city.  In another model, Salvation Farms in Vermont organizes gleaning collectives across the state, and is expanding its surplus capture programs to include the light processing of commodities.  As part of a graduate school project, BAG’s Executive Director, Duck Caldwell, had the pleasure of interviewing Theresa Snow, Executive Director of Salvation Farms.

Theresa processing potatoes at the Southeast State Correctional Facility with inmate work crew.

Q: How did you become interested in food recovery?

A: I have a natural-born desire to teach people about food.  I got a degree in Resource Management from Sterling College, and I wanted to apply that knowledge to my hometown.  I am from the northeast kingdom of Vermont, so this area is part of me and I am part of it.  My whole family is here, and I come from an agricultural background.  I wanted to make my community more food secure and also teach people the value of their area farms.  The guiding question of my work is: how do we create independence through greater interdependence?

Q: Can you tell me more about the history of Salvation Farms and the changes in your role over the years?

A: When I got out of college, it was difficult for me to figure out how I was going to do this work, but I began working on a local farm here that raises greens.  The farmer, in an attempt to help me with my angst, told me that he had lots of extra greens at certain times, and that I could do something with them if I wanted.  That’s how the gleaning started, and I did that for a year, gleaning and organizing volunteers to help with that.  The next year, I took it outside that farm, and then found a co-founder to help form Salvation Farms (SF), which we did for a couple more years.  We were then approached by the Vermont Food Bank and developed a gleaning program for them.  But our role now is to logistically coordinate communities to do this work so that the state is very well poised to capture all available agricultural surplus.

Q: Please describe the structure of the Vermont “gleaning collective.”

A: The gleaning collective is a collection of gleaning groups who have agreed to work with Salvation Farms in several communities across the state.  Currently, there are five groups in different regions. We really want the collective members to retain their own identities and styles so that they can provide the best service to their own communities based on the profiles of the farms in their areas and their resources.  I want to collectively problem-solve with them and to create best practices, and to develop these in a way that puts Vermont before ourselves and any one of our communities.  And we want farms to be proud and confident about being engaged with this process.

Q: Do you have a goal of a quantifiable amount of surplus you would like to see Salvation Farms help capture in Vermont?

A: Yes, 2 million pounds annually of fruit and vegetables, and another 5 million in beef – these are culled dairy cows that would be rescued from going into the out-of-state commercial meat system. Most slaughter/processing houses here are closed down during the winter/spring months, so the goal is to develop a system here in Vermont that can process this beef in the “off season” to keep the highest quality dairy beef in state and to keep the doors of these processing facilities open and retaining employees.

Q: How is this field of work being named – or, how do you think it should be named? Where is the language coming from?

A: The food bank world traditionally uses the term “food rescue.”  For me, coming from a natural resource management background, I have started using the term “agricultural resource management.”  “Gleaning” I like to use for food captured from farm fields only, the very traditional use.  A lot of the terminology that currently exists is from the charitable emergency food world.  SF is not a charitable emergency food organization.  We are creating food independence, and through this work, we will enable Vermont communities to provide food to their own vulnerable populations.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for you in this field?

A: Working with people presents both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward.  The biggest organizational challenge is building shared vision and an understanding that managing food is socially responsible and will help us all.  All of our work depends on partners, so we need to share ownership.  In terms of promoting the work, I am always trying to think about how we can get people to understand deeper truths about food and resources.

Duck with gleaned kale at a farm in Lunenburg, MA. Photo by Oakes Plimpton.

Q: How do you see the food recovery field changing in the next ten years?  What will be the ongoing role of farmers?

A: Because resource scarcity is going to become more of an issue, we will need efforts to rebuild regional economies, and it’s going to make much more sense and be more dependable for local economies to create means of surplus capture.  Farmers need to keep doing their work, but include in that their responsibility to their communities outside of the marketplace, and to see this work as an integral part of their operations.  They can contribute to better resource capture by demanding good service from gleaning groups, and by working closely with them to help that happen effectively.

Q: In your vision, describe the roles of public and private agencies in agricultural surplus management, and where does citizen involvement fit in?

A: The non-profit role is to partner-build and coordinate localized food capture. Private partners will fill the role of trucking and distribution, as well as producing.  The public sector’s role is to fully support the role of processing and provide labor for on-the-ground food capture, and to fill the role of workforce development in this field.  They have an essential role in helping leverage greater human equity; for example, by bringing into the work the incarcerated population, as well as young veterans.  These are people who need training and jobs, and this presents an opportunity to develop that workforce.

Q: Besides philanthropic support, what other financial models do you think could help support food recovery efforts on a state-wide level?

A: I daydream about the day that the state will take responsibility for this resource management; it probably won’t be run as well but at least it will be part of the system, but that is not going to be any time soon.  I think that ultimately, all states need to take responsibility for their surplus and manage it within their states in ways that make sense on a localized level.

Q: I read that one of your goals was to create a replicable model.  What kind of resources do you think you would need to help begin that replication process? What kind of work needs to happen?

A: We aren’t really close to being a model yet since we are still developing, but I think that the challenge for other states trying to replicate the model will be adjusting it to the needs of their state and its agricultural profile.  Vermont is really the perfect state to start this, because we don’t have behemoth anything.  Yes, we are agricultural, but we are not industrialized agriculture and we are highly diversified.  So we are going to depend on people to do this work, whereas in highly mechanized states, they will have to develop other models of capture.

For more information on Salvation Farms, visit their blog at http://salvationfarms.wordpress.com/.

Duck Caldwell is Executive Director of the Boston Area Gleaners and a 2013 MBA Candidate at Antioch University in New England.  She can be reached by e-mail at director@bostonareagleaners.org or by phone at 781-894-3212.

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