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What Are Gleaning Programs?

written by: J Sarah Metzker Erdemir • edited by: Rhonda Callow • updated: 6/27/2011

“Gleaning” is not a typo—it’s the ancient practice of collecting unharvested or unsold produce from farms. This food is then distributed to low-income families in need of fresh fruits and vegetables. What are gleaning programs, and how do they help people who can’t afford fresh food?

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    Gleaning and Food Rescue: Preventing Waste and Feeding Families

    Every year, almost half of the food produced in the US is thrown away. This wasted food costs consumers money and takes up space in landfills. Some of this food is household waste, but a lot of it is unsold prepared food from restaurants and institutions. Even more food is wasted at the production level, where fresh fruits and vegetables from farms are tilled under because of high harvesting costs, or culled out because of an undesirable physical appearance. Gleaning programs are food rescue programs. While some of them have the facilities to collect, store and distribute prepared food, most gleaning programs focus on gathering fresh produce from farms and getting it to the people who need it.

    Farmers who work to produce food do not like to waste it, but sometimes price changes in a crop make it economically impractical to pay people to harvest and process all of what they’ve grown so the remaining crop is tilled into the soil. Supermarkets tend to buy fruits and vegetables of uniform size and without physical defects, so farms often throw away produce that is too large, too small, or that has bruises and insect damage. All of this produce is perfectly useable, but harvesting and hauling it is too costly.

    Gleaning programs aim to collect this unused food from farms before it is thrown away and give it people who need it. The produce is harvested either by volunteers or by the recipients themselves, then distributed to food banks or to group members who are unable to participate in the harvesting. The farmers often receive a tax deduction or tax credit for their donation, and they get the satisfaction of knowing their hard work hasn’t gone to waste, but instead is helping families in need.

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    Organizing Gleaning Programs

    Starting a gleaning program in your area is not difficult, though careful organization is required. Relationships with farmers must be developed, and one or more groups of reliable volunteers must be trained and prepared to go to a farm at short notice. Gleaning programs are often partnered with local food banks in order to be able offer tax incentives to farmers, as well as liability coverage for any accidents that might happen on their property.

    When approaching a farmer about allowing volunteer gleaners onto his land, gleaning program coordinators must work out logistical issues like transportation of the gleaners and produce. Timing issues are also important, since produce is perishable and often crops must be moved out quickly at short notice to make room for more crops. They should discuss tools that will be needed and who will provide them, and get information about toilet facilities, parking, and any special requests the farmer has. For example, some farmers don’t want children in their fields or forbid smoking on their land to protect certain crops. Gleaning program coordinators should make sure volunteer gleaners are trained in the behavior that’s expected of the crew, and organize necessities like water, snacks, sunscreen, and basic first aid.

    When the produce has been harvested, it must be distributed in a timely manner. Some volunteer gleaning groups deliver their harvest directly to food banks for distribution to smaller agencies or to low-income people. Other groups might divide the harvest between themselves or distribute it directly to other members through smaller neighborhood networks. Gleaning groups often work together to process and preserve fresh produce for use in the winter months, which can also be given to people in need.