As fall’s chill descends and frost warnings pepper the weather reports, local farms begin looking more like wastelands than lush sources of food. But peeking from behind scraggly weeds or under rotting squash leaves, sustenance remains. In fact, according to the Vermont Foodbank’s website, “96 billion pounds [of food] are lost between production and consumption” each year in the U.S.
The process of culling leftovers from farmers’ fields, called gleaning, is as old as agriculture itself. Several Bible passages actually mandate that growers leave the last bits of the harvest for “the poor and the stranger.”
Some gleaning happens on a small scale — one neighbor approaching another about using her extra zucchini, say. On a larger scale, the Vermont Foodbank manages a project designed to bring healthy local produce to the food insecure. Theresa Snow, who founded the program as Salvation Farms in 2004, says its team of field coordinators and volunteers salvaged more than 300,000 pounds of food over this past year. The produce comes from 87 participating farms.
Gleaning may seem like a harvest-time activity, but local programs actually operate from spring to winter. For the last eight years, Jen McGowen has managed the Intervale’s gleaning project, which now belongs to the Foodbank’s network. “We glean every Tuesday and Thursday all season,” she says, noting that most of the food comes from Digger’s Mirth and the Intervale Community Farm. “We’ll call the farmers the day before, and they’ll tell us what crops to focus on.”
Once the fruits and veggies arrive at the Foodbank, surplus is processed so it can be stored and distributed during the winter, when fresh food is scarce. Items that can be used immediately are distributed to 300 sites around the state, including food shelves, senior centers and shelters, says Judy Stermer, the Foodbank’s director of communications and public affairs.
Stermer notes that, because of the recession, many people who haven’t needed public assistance in the past are now food insecure. “The cost of living is such that [some] people aren’t making it anymore, maybe living paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “Those are people we really need to reach out to.” Stermer stresses that food shelves don’t ask for proof of income: If you say you need food, they’ll give you some. The Foodbank’s website and its 211 hotline help people find resources close to home.
What if you get a bag of kohlrabi or tomatillos and don’t know what to do with ’em? Stermer says staffers at food shelves around the state are being trained to answer cooking questions. There are also programs, such as “Cooking for Life” from the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger, that teach participants how to use up fresh produce. Free cooking demos at food markets and co-ops can be a valuable resource — as can a local library. Fletcher Free in Burlington has an uncommonly large — and high-quality — collection of cookbooks.
People who know their way around a vegetable plantation may be tempted to glean the traditional way — get out in those fields and grab something. That’s generally not a good idea, cautions Snow. She points out that plants may be damaged when their fruits are plucked improperly. Plus, not all farmers have time to instruct gleaners on where they can and can’t harvest.
For those who want to fill the fridge with fresh food but aren’t in dire financial straits, Snow has several suggestions. “We need to think outside the monetary box; there’s power in personal connection,” she opines. One option is to ask neighbors with big gardens or fruit trees if they have any excess, or offer to trade a service for some of the goods. “Say, ‘Can I help you weed for a day?’” Snow says. Or, if you live near a farm and have a few hours to spare, you could offer to work for cukes instead of cash.
Got a school in the neighborhood? These days, many educational facilities have gardens and need help tending them during vacations. “If people get involved in maintaining those gardens, maybe they can go home with whatever doesn’t make it to the cafeteria,” suggests Snow.
We can only hope that, as time goes on, more and more farmers will open their fields to gleaning, swelling the store of produce. Says Stermer, “Food banking began with the idea that if we were able to rescue just a little bit of what is wasted in this country, we’d be able to feed people 10 times over.” And she notes that, like all budget hunting, gleaning offers the thrill of surprise: “It’s pretty amazing to get down on your knees and dig through weeds to find spinach or blueberries.”