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To Decrease Food Waste and Fight Hunger, Boston Area Org Gleans Unharvested Food from Local Farms

November 15, 2012 |

According to a recent report released by the National Resource Defense Council, nearly half of all the food produced in the United States never makes it to the dinner table. At the same time, hunger has become a major problem in the United States, with 46 million people relying on the nations’ Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps). The Boston Area Gleaners, a non-profit food rescue organization based in Waltham, Mass., seeks to bridge the gap between excess food and hungry people by diverting some of that waste to families in need through an age-old practice of gleaning, or picking crops that have been passed over during primary harvest.

How Gleaning Works

The Boston Area Gleaners have developed a relationship with 25 farms in the Boston area; though they do not open their fields to gleaners every year. Executive director, Laurie “Duck” Caldwell and a part-time gleaning coordinator field calls from farmers with extra produce that they will not be able to harvest themselves. When a call comes in from a farmer with extra rows of produce ready to be picked, Caldwell has to work fast. She talks directly with the farmer to make sure she understands exactly what is available and how many people will be needed to complete the job. She sends out a mass email to a network of 450 volunteers requesting a few handfuls of volunteers to meet and carpool to the farm. Sometimes, Caldwell has a few days to set this up, other times, just 24 hours.

On the farm, Caldwell connects with the farmer making sure she understands exactly where they should be picking and how to do so without damaging the plants. In the fields, she trains and supervises the volunteers to make sure that they are following the farmers’ guidelines. At the end of the gleaning day, she and her volunteers load up the Boston Area Gleaners van with bushel after bushel of freshly picked crops to deliver to the local emergency food system.

Caldwell says that her relationships with farmers are built on “trust and liability insurance.” The Good Samaritan Act protects individuals, organizations, and companies donating food from potential legal ramifications provided there has been no gross negligence. However, farmers inviting volunteer gleaners onto their land could potentially be liable if something happened to them while they are in the fields. Boston Area Gleaners holds a liability insurance policy just in case gleaners inadvertently damage farmers’ crops, land, or equipment.

Boston Area Gleaners at Brigham Farm in Concord, MA Gleaning Beets. Photo: Laurie “Duck” Caldwell of Boston Area Gleaners

Despite potential liability, Caldwell says that farmers generally are glad to welcome gleaners into their fields. “So many of them want to see [their produce] go to people who can use it. They worked hard to grow that food and they can’t afford to do that that donation piece as well.”

Inherent Food Surpluses

Caldwell explains that crop surpluses are often an unavoidable byproduct of modern farming. “Basically when farmers plan their fields, they take their best guess and then cross their fingers. Generally, they have to plant more than they need to make sure that they cover their markets. In that way there is always some surplus.” She adds that weather can cause crops that had been planted successively to ripen all at once, leaving farmers with more produce than they can pick or move.

Even more produce is often picked over because it does not meet the standard that markets demand. “Americans have been trained to be so choosy about what their produce is supposed to look like. We don’t allow for much variation,” Caldwell says, adding that in many cases produce that has been passed over for aesthetic reasons still has the same nutritional value.

Bridging the Gap Between Waste and Want

Boston Area Gleaners founder Oakes Plimpton started gleaning on his own in 2004 after retiring from a volunteer position as the director of a community farm. At first, he headed out to the fields with a single additional volunteer and loaded up his minivan. Soon he recruited the assistance of young adults living in a local halfway house. In 2007, Plimpton incorporated Boston Area Gleaners and applied for 501 (c) 3 status.

Last year, gleaners collected 45,000 pounds of produce, roughly a quarter of a million servings, from area farms and redistributed it to area food pantries either directly or through Food for Free, an emergency food distribution network based in Cambridge that supplies 80 different food pantries, shelters, and meal programs in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, Mass. This year, Caldwell says that the organization is on target to increase those figures by 10-15 percent.

Not all of the food gleaned appeals to everyone and Caldwell says that the organization makes a concerted effort to make sure that they are not dumping unwanted food on pantries. That has meant getting to know what people like. People from Haiti, for instance, especially love overripe corn; the gleaners make sure to deliver any that they pick to communities where Haitians tend to live. Russians, on the other hand, tend to love oversize beets, so they go to Russian neighborhoods. Similarly, Mexicans prefer their squash to be oversized.

Behind the Scenes

Boston Area Gleaners only has two employees, including Caldwell, and both only work part time. Between paying Caldwell and the gleaning coordinator’s modest, part-time salaries, transportation costs, and insurance, the operation costs around $50,000 each year. Without any state or federal funding, Caldwell relies entirely on private donations and private grants. In order to make ends meet, she has had to ask recipient organizations to pay a small delivery fee of $5 per box of food if they are able.

Caldwell sees many opportunities to grow the concept. She says that the food pantries that she works directly with have seen a 25-30 percent increase in demand since 2008. She never has any food left over and knows that there are likely many more farms out their with food rotting on the vine. “I know we’re just scratching the surface and we could do more. But we have to raise more money. Despite the fact that this is an elegantly simple idea, to orchestrate it is pretty complex.”

People have been gleaning since biblical times, however the concept has yet to take hold on a large scale in the United States. She believes that gleaning works best at the localized level, where gleaners know both the farmers and the food pantries. Boston Area Gleaners focuses on the area inside the Route 495 beltway surrounding Boston. She would like to see a network start to develop between localized gleaning organizations that can offer technical assistance and promote best practices.

Ultimately, Caldwell would like to see gleaning become a necessary component of sustainable farming. She urges farmers to think about sustainability in terms of the entire food system, not just what happens on the farm. “Vulnerable people are a part of that system. They are not just an add on.”

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