Gleaning recovers local food in Vermont

A handful of wrinkled apples here, a stalk of corn too small for market there. All over the country, these items of produce and more are going to waste.

The practice of gleaning harkens back to ancient times, when people would go into fields to harvest the produce that was not quite fit for market yet could still be consumed. In modern times, that practice has taken a backseat in the age where all of the produce that comes across our plates must be perfection.
But programs all over the world, and perhaps more importantly, all over the state of Vermont are starting to bring the practice back into focus.

Now, technically speaking there are several different ways to go about gleaning, which is also often referred to as “food recovery.” There is the standard gleaning, which involves collecting crops from a farmer’s field. For whatever reason, these crops are still in the field and thus are available to glean.

“Just looking at 2016, we recovered 47 different crops,” said Allison Levin, founder and director of Community Harvest of Central Vermont. “Some years we get a lot of one crop, and not another. Last year was a big apple year . . . the year before we had a lot of winter squash.”

The other types of food recovery are the recovery of perishable food, which is typically from retail or wholesale outlets, non-perishable food collection and the recovery of food from the food industry. This is different from the recovery of perishable food because it comes from places like restaurants and hotels, not in bulk.

Farming and agriculture within Vermont accounts for 17 percent of the GDP of the state and provides 11 percent of the jobs, according to the Vermont Land Trust. What this means is that there is quite a lot of produce being grown each year, with a large chunk potentially going to waste.

“This year [2016] we moved about 120,000 pounds I think, [which] would be more than 350,000 servings of produce,” said Theresa Snow, executive director of Salvation Farms, which operates within Lamoille County. “So we have the potential of reaching between 3,000-6,000 individuals in this region.”

The struggle of getting food to the needy by way of recovery has reached all the way to the Environmental Protection Agency and their Food Recovery Challenge. What this involves is that organizations promise to develop practices in dealing with sustainable food, as well as reporting their results.

One bonus about this program, aside from the food recovery aspect is that this is aimed at reducing how the rejected food and packaging affect the environment.

Price Chopper, the supermarket chain operating throughout New England, New York, Pennsylvania and surrounding states joined the EPA’s challenge in late 2016.

According to a press release from the EPA, “Price Chopper’s sustainability programs and partnership with Feeding America align well with the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy to Feed Hungry People. After source reduction, this partnership emphasizes food donation and fresh recovery as a food waste management top priority.”

Other programs, which involve recovering already prepared food for distribution, are growing roots in Vermont.

The Food Recovery Network is a student organized movement organized in 2011, which has recovered 1.8 million pounds of food since its inception. There aren’t too many chapters close to or in Vermont, the nearest one operating out of Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont.

To date, since the spring of 2016, they have recovered and distributed 350 pounds of food, which is a step in the right direction. According to the network’s webpage, the “students recover the surplus food from their dining hall by packaging it, putting it in a freezer or fridge overnight and then transporting the food to a hunger fighting partner the next day.”

To help with serving Vermonters fresh produce, there is the Vermont Gleaning Collective, which services Addison, Chittenden, Franklin, Grand Isle, Lamoille, Rutland and Washington counties through their member organizations.

“We tend to focus on recovering surplus from local farms, whether it’s direct from fields or at houses or farmer’s markets or direct from the producer,” said Levin. “We’re recovering food that would otherwise be going to waste, so if we weren’t gleaning it, it would either be going to compost or to the trash, depending on where it is.”

The food that these organizations collect are items which would otherwise go to waste due to perceived flaws such as cosmetic imperfection, or a smaller size than the ideal. There is the ideal image of how a vegetable should look, and if it does not meet criteria, then it is discarded.

According to a paper published by the National Resources Defense Council in 2012, 40 percent of food in America goes uneaten per year. This results in a loss of approximately $165 billion a year worth of food that is destined for the landfill.

According to the Agency of Natural Resources, in the Department of Environmental Conservation, Vermont is one of the first states in the nation to adopt a policy, which could help reduce the amount of food that ends up getting dumped in the garbage. The Universal Recycling law, which deals with food recovery, was enacted in 2012 in an effort to lessen this wasting.

“Through one of our partners, Salvation Farms, they just did research to determine what the recipient-based potential would be for the food we are recovering,” said Levin. “The actual amount of food out there on farms is about 14.3 million pounds a year, which is potentially available from farms. So there’s a large demand and I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s decreasing.”

This is not to say that gleaning is the perfect solution to the food insecurity problem. But it is a better way of utilizing pre-existing resources to help feed people.

“I think gleaning is important on many levels; one of the most powerful is as an educational tool, an opportunity to engage people on local farms and teach them about the implications of a national and global food supply, what that does to small farmers,” said Snow.

So how does gleaning work exactly? Does it mean that just about anyone can walk into a field, take the remaining runty produce and leave?

Volunteers work quite a few gleaning organizations within the state, so the answer to that question is maybe.

“All of our work is done with volunteers, and we partner with local farms and coordinate with them and learn about their operations, so we can best serve them and hope that they will call us when they have surplus,” said Levin.

After they are finished harvesting what remains in these fields, these organizations need to find a way to distribute the food. Salvation Farms typically distributes their produce via a small truck when the load is small enough to do so.

“Oftentimes the food is moved from farms via that vehicle,” said Snow. “But when the volume of crops is large, we pay Black River Produce to haul product for us, from farm to one of our primary programs.”
Community Harvest of Central Vermont does it a different way when receiving harvests from farms.

“Sometimes we set up arrangements where we can pick up once a week or go to their farm on a regular basis . . . other times they just call us when they realize they have a crop they can’t harvest,” said Levin. “Maybe it’s because they can’t utilize it or have extra or it has imperfect parts to it; the carrots aren’t the right size or the right shape, or they’re not quite ready for selling, but they’re still good for eating even if they don’t look perfect.”

Every week, the food that Community Harvest takes in gets stored in their new cooler. Volunteers then come to package and deliver to the 14 or 15 delivery sites throughout Washington County. The distribution sites include food shelves, early childhood programs, afterschool programs and organizations that feed those with limited access to fresh, local food.

“We don’t even reach out to recipient partners; they mostly come to us, so there’s plenty . . . we always say there’s plenty more food to recover, and there’s plenty more recipients. It’s just a question of volunteers and the funding,” said Levin. “So we’ve been building our program to meet that demand, but we certainly haven’t maximized that.”

These organizations don’t just stick to distributing their food within their counties. Salvation Farms provides food to the Vermont Foodbank, and they “can reach upwards of 150,000 individuals within a year,” said Snow.

Salvation Farms also distributes to the New Hampshire Foodbank, which can make an accurate number of the people they reach difficult to gauge.

But as helpful as gleaning is to feed the people of Vermont and the surrounding environs, it isn’t a final solution to end the problem of food insecurity. It is merely a stopgap measure in the meantime.

“My opinion may be contrary to others, so . . . I would say [gleaning] is not a solution,” said Snow. “It’s a solution, perhaps, for addressing a lack of nutrients, access to nutritional and possibly ecologically responsible foods through a charitable food system. Charity is not ending hunger; it’s staunching some symptoms of hunger and poverty.”