Harvesting Leftovers Feeds the Hungry
Americans annually discard more food than plastic—35 million tons in 2012—an amount that’s tripled since 1960, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Most of the waste is fruits and vegetables, seafood, grains, meat and milk. Since waste starts in the fields before it compounds via restaurants, grocers and families, the easiest starting point to reverse this trend is with farmers.
“Farming’s a high-risk business. Farmers can’t predict weather, sales or equipment problems, so extra is grown,” explains Laurie Caldwell, executive director of Boston Area Gleaners, in Waltham, Massachusetts. “Up to 20 percent of U.S.-grown food isn’t harvested. Gleaners save what’s left behind for hungry people in need.”
“Income disparity, economic vulnerability and lack of knowledge leads to unhealthy choices,” adds Caldwell. “The negative consequences become a community burden.” Countering the problem, “We’ve seen a shift in priorities, with food pantries offering fresh, quality food and educating both staff and recipients,” she reports. In 2014, Boston Area Gleaners harvested 34 farms, contributing 177,000 pounds of primarily vegetables encompassing 60 varieties.
California’s fruit is abundant because of the state’s year-round growing season. Until the 1960s and the advent of Silicon Valley, this was the world’s largest fruit-producing region. Some of its current apple trees date back to the Gold Rush days. “We glean backyards and orchards here,” says Craig Diserens, executive director of Village Harvest, in San Jose. “Apples, pears, cherries, peaches, plums and apricots, plus citrus fruits—it’s ladderless picking, to protect both volunteers and trees.” Telescoping tools pluck out-of-reach fruit. The nonprofit gleans 15 to 20 times a month via volunteers ages 5 to 90. In 2013, its Harvesting for the Hungry program distributed 245,000 pounds of fruit.
The Feeding America West Michigan food bank, headquartered in Comstock, provides more than produce, with donations from manufacturers, wholesalers, restaurants and stores adding meat, dairy, frozen foods and bread. Volunteers repackage donations into usable sizes; do clerical work; pick produce; and sort, pack, store and deliver food.
While most of the nonprofit’s yield is distributed through 1,100 food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens, many can’t store perishables. Working with churches, schools and community centers, the organization’s mobile units deliver fresh food directly to recipients, often the same day it is donated. Each unit can carry food for 100 to 200 families. This local Feeding America outreach group serves an estimated 492,000 people each year.
The Society of St. Andrew often rescues the “ugly” produce—potatoes not well-shaped for chips, oversized peaches, too-long green beans, too-ripe strawberries and apples that aren’t picture perfect. “Farmers get a tax benefit and people get fresh food,” says Bruce Oland, the Triangle Area coordinator in North Carolina. “Farmers let us know when they’ll harvest a crop and we have a few days to glean what’s left before they replant. We pick anything edible—kale, lettuce, tomatoes, cantaloupe and lots of sweet potatoes.” In a single harvested field, volunteers have gleaned seven tons of sweet potatoes.
The society’s gleaning and feeding ministry has regional offices in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Additional areas are located in Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio and Pennsylvania (see EndHunger.org).
Jason Brown, a former St. Louis Rams’ center with a five-year, $37 million contract, traded his cleats for a tractor. Now in Louisburg, North Carolina, he calls First Fruits Farm home and plans to donate the first fruits of every harvest to food pantries. He learned about farming from YouTube videos, computer searches and other farmers. The first crop on five acres yielded 100,000 pounds of sweet potatoes; Brown gave it all away. With 1,000 acres to farm, he’s set to tackle hunger big time.
• Download a free gleaning guide and handbook at EndHunger.org/other.
• Request free seeds to plant a First Fruits Garden at WisdomForLife.org/sow-a-seed-1.html.
• Get water-saving tips from the University of California, Davis, at Tinyurl.com/GardenWaterSavers.
It doesn’t require a big time commitment to help feed the hungry. Backyard gardeners can start by planting an extra row (Tinyurl.com/PlantRowForHungry). Since its inception in 1995, the Plant a Row program has collectively turned 20 million pounds of produce into 80 million meals.
Offer to pick a neighbor’s excess produce or herbs, and then check with others nearby. Get the kids involved. Volunteer at or make a donation to a soup kitchen. Gather a group of friends, family, members of an organization or congregation to glean or repackage produce one day a month. If a local food pantry can’t accept perishables, leverage social media to spread the word about which day free food will be available at a church or school. Everyone can help. No one should go to bed hungry.
Connect with freelance writer Avery Mack at AveryMack@mindspring.com.