In Battle Against Food Waste, Gleaning Org Develops Workforce to Process Unused Produce
December 19, 2016 | Pamela Hunt
The United States is a wealthy country. It is home to some of the richest families in the world and is a major food exporter to countries with fewer resources. Yet, according to feedingamerica.org, 13 percent of US households were food-insecure last year, while at the same time, 40 percent of the food produced in this country never finds its way to families’ tables and approximately 6 billion pounds of fresh produce is left to rot in farmers’ fields each year.
An incredible amount of food is wasted. How did this happen? Some point to strong consumer preference for pristine fruits and vegetables. As a result, misshapen or slightly imperfect produce sits unpicked in fields and orchards, or is tossed into landfills, where it emits methane into the atmosphere. Much of this abandoned food is perfectly edible and could go a long way toward alleviating hunger in many communities.
One organization in northern Vermont is determined to put this once-wasted food to use by distributing it to those who need it the most. Salvation Farms was established in 2004 with a focus on gleaning left-behind produce from Vermont farms. In 2012, the organization became an independent nonprofit with a more strategic mission: for all Vermonters to have food security.
Seedstock recently spoke with Theresa Snow, executive director of Salvation Farms. She explained the organization’s beginnings and how it has shifted its focus from “doing” to “teaching” with its hands-on Vermont Commodity program, a workforce-development course through which it processes large quantities of gleaned local produce.
Seedstock: How did Salvation Farms come to be?
Theresa Snow: While working at a farm in northern Vermont in 2004, I started engaging volunteers to go to area farms to harvest what they were not going to sell. We would then put that food primarily into charitable food outlets as well as youth feeding sites, senior feeding sites—anywhere where there were people who were traditionally food insecure, nutritionally insecure, financially insecure or accessing food assistance or meal programs. That was when we founded Salvation Farms.
Seedstock: Can you tell us about the unique Vermont Commodity Program that Salvation Farms created, and how it works?
Theresa Snow: In 2012, we started piloting the Vermont Commodity Program through which we worked with partners around the state and volunteers to minimally process gleaned produce and pack it for distribution. We found that this conjunction of getting food to those who need it and workforce development worked, so this year, we signed a lease in Winooski, Vermont, where this program can have a permanent home.
Seedstock: How much food has the Vermont Commodity program recovered?
Theresa Snow: Since starting this current workforce-development cycle at the beginning of September, we’ve been able to handle around 50,000 pounds. And that gleaned produce has come from just a handful of farms. We’ve been able to receive some volume from programs from the Vermont Gleaning Collective [a network of professional gleaning programs that Salvation Farms coordinates].
Seedstock: What does the future look like for the Commodity Program?
Theresa Snow: First, we need to really figure out what our capacity is. That hinges on multiple things. One, it really depends on our staff’s capacity to manage a training program and the facility’s physical capacity, as well as the quantity and quality of what farms are sending us. We think that a relatively safe estimate of what we can move is around 100,000 pounds per training cycle. We’re certainly below that right now, but that makes sense given that this is our first run. Farmers are getting used to us; sites are getting used to the availability of the product. We’re building up our operational systems. I think when we really start running this program next year, full-time with three training cycles, we will likely exceed a quarter-million pounds.