What Is Gleaning?

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What Is Gleaning?

It’s no secret that our food system is, in many ways, broken. One symptom of that brokenness is the massive scale of food waste we see in the United States and across the world. In the U.S. alone, we waste 92 billion pounds of food every year, according to Feeding America, which amounts to around 145 billion meals. Considering that more than 44 million people in the United States face regular hunger (including one in five children), that kind of food waste is a tragedy—there are people suffering from empty stomachs while decent food rots before it’s consumed.

When we think of food waste, though, our minds might first go to the bag of wilting spinach in the back of our fridge or the piles of produce that end up in dumpsters behind huge suburban grocery stores. This type of food waste definitely accounts for a large portion of the good food that goes uneaten, but it’s not the only place along the supply chain that food goes to waste. In fact, 21% food waste actually occurs on farms themselves, before the food ever even reaches the market.

Why is this food wasted, you ask? Most of the time, it comes down to cosmetic issues. Farms often can’t sell produce that doesn’t look picture-perfect sitting on a grocery store shelf. Generally, it would cost more to process this produce than it’s actually worth, so farmers will often leave this food in the ground, not even bothering to pick it.

That’s where gleaning comes in. Gleaning is the act of harvesting extra food from farms to provide hungry and food-insecure people with something to eat. The practice has a long history in different parts of the world; it was even mentioned in the Bible as a way for productive, land-owning people to give back to the poorer members of their communities.

Despite its long history, people are still gleaning today. Not only is it a great way to reduce food waste, but it can also help feed our hungry and food-insecure neighbors. Some people simply enjoy gleaning for the sake of digging in the dirt and spending some time in nature.

Go Glean!

So, want to try gleaning out for yourself? Not only is it an interesting way to volunteer, but it’s also an opportunity to learn more about where our food comes from. Digging in the dirt and processing produce can give you greater insight into the food system, and it may just make you appreciate your next meal even more. At the very least, it’s a good workout—spending a few hours walking around a field harvesting corn or potatoes is a fun alternative to a standard run or an hour at the gym.

A great way to get started gleaning is by getting connected with a food bank in your area. Food banks will often organize gleaning trips to farms so participants can spend some time in the field harvesting food. Generally, the food bank you volunteer for will provide everything you need to glean.

The food you harvest through gleaning will then be processed and sent to food banks or pantries, where individuals can gain access to healthy, whole foods, or to a soup kitchen, where the produce can be used directly in meals provided to those who need them.

Whether you’re looking for an excuse to spend a Saturday outdoors or you’re searching for ways to help connect people in your community to good, healthy food, you may want to try gleaning.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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