Gleaning: A Win-Win for Farmers and the Food Insecure
For as long as farms have existed, people have been gleaning, or harvesting excess produce to give to those in need. In biblical times, farmers would leave our corners of their farms un-harvested for the poor to gather. In the modern era, farmers have to do their own gleaning, either when clearing land for the next planting, or if there’s an overabundance. The issue? Farmers often don’t have the time or resources to harvest excess crops or get their surplus into the hands of those who need it most.
“As a farmer, knowing there’s produce that’s going to rot out there is a little heartbreaking,” says Shelly Smith, who co-owns White Cedar Farm in Kensington with her husband, Dave. “It’s so perishable that sometimes it comes and goes before you can get to it.”
In 2013, an anonymous donation through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation aimed to fix this problem. The money was used to hire six regional gleaning coordinators for a pilot program called New Hampshire Gleans. Smith signed on as the Seacoast coordinator this summer, in the program’s third year. Her job is to find gleaning opportunities on farms, at farmers’ markets, and in home gardens. She then calls volunteers to help her gather the harvest and deliver it to local organizations like St. Vincent de Paul in Exeter, the Community Action Partnership (CAP), and Seacoast Family Food Pantry.
It sounds simple, but the logistics can be complicated. Once she identifies a gleaning opportunity, Smith has a day, at most, to enlist some of the 170 volunteers who have found her through Seacoast Eat Local, and get them into the field. Then, she packs up the perishables and finds homes for them. Quickly. If the harvest is too big for one pantry to manage, she’ll divide it up, sometimes driving to two or three different places anywhere from Exeter to Dover and beyond.
On a steamy July afternoon, Smith and volunteers spend several hours in the field, gleaning 400 pounds of zucchini and yellow squash from Dave Tuttle’s Riverside Farm in North Berwick, ME. “Having people like Shelly who are willing to do this is wonderful. I tip my hat off to her and the volunteers for harvesting and finding a home for the product,” says Tuttle.
This was a near-record glean, but in the middle of summer Smith says it’s not uncommon for her to gather up to 300 pounds of fruit and vegetables per week, or 1,200 4-ounce portions. According to the 2014 NH Gleans Annual Report, Seacoast Eat Local gleaned 8,178 pounds of produce last year, or close to 33,000 4-ounce servings of fresh fruit and vegetables. Smith expects the same or better numbers for 2015.
At 1 PM on Saturdays, as the Portsmouth Farmers’ Market winds down and customers head home with baskets full of food and flowers, Smith checks in with farmers, asking them to donate foods that are bruised or wilted or won’t keep until the next market day. On average, she’ll bag anywhere from 25 to 100 pounds of food like cucumbers, squash, eggplant, tomatoes, and even bread. “Farmers like to donate,” says Josh Jennings, farmer at Meadow’s Mirth Farm in Stratham. “I’m always amazed at how much gets collected when the gleaners come around.”
Smith brings Saturday’s bounty next door, to the Seacoast Family Food Pantry on Junkins Avenue in Portsmouth. The donations are a huge help to the pantry because of the influx of children in the summer months, explains Margie Parker, Operations Manager at the food pantry. “We serve over 300 families monthly, plus 10 meals a week for 200 kids who otherwise would have gotten free- or reduced-lunch during the school year,” says Parker.
Families love getting favorites like cucumbers, tomatoes, and zucchini. However, Parker admits that it’s been a struggle to get families to take unfamiliar food. “The biggest hurdle is at the beginning of the season when the food is green or at the end when it’s pale. Leafy greens are probably the toughest sell.”
After all the hard work and care that goes into growing, gleaning, and hand-delivering the food to those in need, it’s concerning to learn that some of it still goes to waste in the hands of those who need it most. “NH Gleans is a really good program but the problem is on the receiving end,” says Jennings, who is also on the board of Seacoast Eat Local. “Last year, volunteers struggled to get food to different pantries, and some people didn’t want it.”
Seacoast Family Food Pantry is combating this problem through educational programming. Instead of sending families home with bags of unrecognizable foods that may go to waste, the pantry sets up fifteen-minute appointments once a month, allowing families to shop for food with staff members. Here, families can choose foods they like, ask questions about storage and preparation, and share recipes. The pantry even supplies complimentary foods like butter and olive oil, spices, herbs, and garlic, which make the food more appetizing, but aren’t in the budget for most families using the program.
The result? “A lot of people who are very excited about fresh food, and a relatively low rate of waste,” says Parker, who has been working with gleaned food at the pantry for about four years. Parker says many of the families from the pantry have even expressed interest in getting out into the fields to volunteer as gleaners, and to meet the farmers who are so generously donating their food.
“We want people to have access to healthy, good food, regardless of their income level,” says Smith. “This program reinforces the fact that this is a great community, full of good people.”