Though it’s often associated with the Old Testament story of Ruth and Boaz, gleaning has found fresh relevance during a 21st-century pandemic. The process of collecting extra crops to feed hungry people is bolstering many American communities while providing perks to farmers.
On Sunday, PBS NewsHour featured a cooperative effort among New York’s Sycamore Farms, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and St. Mary’s Outreach, based at an Episcopal church in Newburgh, New York. Reporter Michael Hill shared how thousands of pounds of fresh produce now goes to good use in a poor community that’s classified as a food desert.
Gleaning: Sharing the Bounty
Sycamore Farms owner Kevin Smith regularly participates in a thriving farmers market in New York City’s Union Square. Instead of discounting his produce at day’s end, Smith now lets a Cornell Extension team sort through the remnants and distribute them throughout the region.
Cornell Extension’s gleaning program transports almost 200 tons of fresh food to local pantries each year, according to director Stiles Najac. “We move food as quickly as we need to to make sure that it is eaten while fresh,” she says. The gleaning process is time-consuming due to “a wide variety of quality” of produce, and COVID-19 precautions present additional obstacles. “I would like to get volunteers into the field,” says Najac, but social distancing and other safety protocols have “kind of slowed us down.”
The pandemic also is affecting the distribution of gleaned produce. At St. Mary’s Outreach, food recipients are screened for symptoms, required to wear masks, and instructed to maintain physical space from others. But that doesn’t hamper their excitement about the bounty that’s available.
“I’m so amazed that they have an abundance of vegetables,” says one recipient. Another shares, “It’s a great privilege to come here…and I’m not ashamed of it because I’m going to go home and I’m going to eat very good.”
The Gleaning Solution
The Association of Gleaning Organizations says almost 200 gleaning programs exist throughout North America. Founding member Shawn Peterson estimates that gleaners gather about 50,000 tons of food yearly. With more volunteers and financial resources, he notes, an even larger portion of the 10 million tons of on-farm food loss could be prevented—and an additional 130 million people could be fed.
“Gleaning is often left out of the conversation about food recovery and hunger relief,” says Peterson, a sixth-generation farmer. “We are working to change this.” To encourage more farmers to participate, some states provide tax credits on top of the federal tax write-off for donating crops to nonprofit groups.
Since the pandemic began, Cross-Lines Community Outreach, a social-services agency in Kansas City, Kansas, has doubled the number of households that use its food pantry. Manager Sarah Kaldenberg says the coronavirus shutdowns have increased some people’s feelings of helplessness, but gleaning provides tangible answers—and hope. “I think gleaning is kind of a way to say there are solutions,” she says. “There’s actually food in our country to feed these people.”
Because of the pandemic, one in six Americans could experience food insecurity in 2020, according to Feeding America. The food-bank network lists ways you and your church can fight hunger during September, which is Hunger Action Month.