Reduce food waste and feed those in need with the help of gleaning groups and other food rescue programs.
by Elizabeth Burrichter
Nearly 40 percent of food produced in America goes to waste, and an overwhelming majority of that food ends up in landfills. This number is hard to swallow not only for the environmental impact of filling landfills with methane-producing material, but even more so because approximately 1 in 10 people in our region are food insecure, according to data collected by Feeding America. This means that one in 10 people lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food. As a regional community concerned about the health of those that struggle without enough food, let’s make fruit and vegetable “rescue” something that everyone can participate in.
Thankfully “food rescue” is finally gaining some traction in popular media. John Oliver managed to take a comedic look at food waste on his show “Last Week Tonight” this past July. In January, National Public Radio presented a story on the salt called “Thou Shalt Not Toss Food: Enlisting Religious Groups to Fight Food Waste”. Even the Environmental Protection Agency has a new initiative to combat food waste, called the Food Recovery Challenge. This initiative “charges organizations and businesses to prevent and reduce wasted food.” They suggest not only preventing excess waste, but also donating extra food and composting the rest. Whether or not you participate in their pledge, I am happy to see a large government agency direct our focus on reducing food waste and feeding the hungry.
Farmers are by no means the biggest culprit of food waste, especially when there is still no tax incentive to the farmer to donate unmarketable or extra food. There are several ways that farmers can play a critical role in serving the hungry. Whether a pest makes a crop unmarketable, or you simply over plant a crop and have more than you can sell, get that extra food to an emergency feeding program whenever possible. There are programs throughout the northeast that can support you in this. If you can host a gleaning on your farm, please do!
I coordinate a program called Squash Hunger at Capital Roots, a nonprofit committed to improving access to healthy food in New York’s Capital Region. We “rescue” surplus produce and bring it to food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters. We started small in 2004 by rescuing 6,200 pounds of produce through the help of our volunteers and community gardeners. In 2015, we redistributed 80,000 pounds to more than 60 community feeding programs, and we intend to continue to grow this program, with a goal of rescuing at least 100,000 pounds of produce in 2016!
We collect produce in several different ways. Squash Hunger provides pickup and delivery of farm donations within one hour of Troy, New York. We also organize volunteers to “glean” the remaining vegetable or fruit harvest at area farms. This activity keeps us busy, especially in the fall and during exceptional apple or vegetable seasons like 2015. Even a gleaning in a relatively small market garden can provide us with a variety of produce items in just a few hours to stock a pantry with the freshest and healthiest food it might have all year. Larger farms give our bigger volunteers groups a chance to fill our vans and trucks with fresh produce and make a donation to every site on our list. More than once I have had clients at food pantries tell me that the produce we deliver is the nicest looking food they have ever seen.
In addition to gleaning farm fields, we place donation bins in small grocery stores and garden centers to encourage shoppers and gardeners to either purchase an extra item to donate, or to bring in extra bounty from their gardens. Volunteers regularly pick up the contents of these bins and bring them to one of many suggested community feeding programs in our area. This part of the program has offered us a unique opportunity to engage local consumers in battling hunger.
We also collect extra produce through our partnerships with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. When customers buy into a farm in exchange for a weekly share of the harvest, farmers are able to pay for inputs upfront and customers get a good deal on their bounty. Due to the nature of this system, customers may sometimes receive produce items that they will not eat. So that these extra items do not go to waste, participating CSA pick up locations host a ‘Squash Hunger bin’ to collect extra items and unclaimed boxes. Our dedicated volunteers deliver them directly to a food pantry, soup kitchen, or homeless shelter.
We are certainly not the only organization doing this important work, and chances are, there is a group in your area that can support your food donation effort. Just in our part of New York, we have been able to collaborate with other gleaning groups to connect even more farmers with those who need this extra food the most. A local land trust called Agricultural Stewardship Association connected us with Comfort Food Community in Greenwich, New York, a community center that hosts a food pantry well-stocked with fresh food items sourced through gleaning. A new gleaning group south of us, coordinated by Audrey Berman and Laura Engelman, will be working closely with 15 farmers in Columbia County this season to glean produce for delivery to pantries in their area. They are sponsored by Philmont Beautification, Inc. and are currently seeking additional funding to expand their work. Stiles Najac coordinates the Glean Mobile, a project of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Orange County. They glean more than 200,000 pounds of produce for donation each year!
If farmers, gleaning organizers, and volunteers can work together to rescue and donate extra produce, many more underserved members of our community will have access to fresh and healthy food. Vermont Law School hosts a program called the National Gleaning Project. On their website they list gleaning and food reclamation programs that work all across the country. This is a great resource for farmers to find support for donating produce. Harvesting, packaging, and delivering produce for free is a lot of work, but you do not have to do it yourself. I urge farmers to use this resource and host a gleaning whenever appropriate, and I urge anyone who is able to volunteer for a food rescue program to do so. Gleanings give non-farmers a chance to connect with their local food economy, get their hands dirty, and make a big difference in the health of those who need community feeding programs to get by. Gleanings give farmers and non-farmers alike the chance to work together to alleviate hunger in our communities.
Liz Burrichter coordinates the Squash Hunger program at Capital Roots, and is a beginning farmer in Eastern New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.