SPRINGFIELD TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Armed with a cheap steak knife and a plastic basket lined with a garbage bag, a high-school sophomore named Alicia Garlic sat cross-legged in the dirt at Specca Farms, a pick-your-own operation here in South Jersey. As the sun burned through the early morning clouds, she harvested curly-leaf spinach as fast as she could, lopping the sweet green tops off yellowing plants, trimming away thickening stems.
Garlic wasn’t picking greens for herself on this Tuesday morning in June, but for Farmers Against Hunger, a program of the New Jersey Agricultural Society. Along with more than a dozen others spread out along the rows for social distancing — a retired schoolteacher, a Census Bureau employee, a young mother with her grade-schooler in tow — she was there to glean.
Gleaning is a hallowed agricultural tradition, traditionally defined as gathering anything left over after a harvest. In this country, it has long been the province of religious groups inspired by the ancient Jewish story of Ruth, written at a time when gleaning was still a protected right for the poor. In recent years — as new emphasis has been placed on supporting local agriculture, reducing waste and improving the nutritional quality of food in hunger relief — a fresh wave of organizations have taken to the idea.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, mile-long traffic jams at food banks and the disturbing sight of farmers plowing under their onions when food-service contracts disappeared overnight.
Now, gleaning groups are at the front lines of those helping to stabilize the nation’s shaky food supply, perfectly positioned to leverage one problem — a bounty of unsellable crops — to help solve another: rampant hunger.
“When you see how long the food lines are, it just kind of makes people realize that now we have to find the food that is already here,” said Virginia Baker, the part-time gleaning coordinator for Farmers Against Hunger. “We already have it. We just have to be able to get it into the hands of the people who need it.”
Baker, 27, tracks down growers willing to donate surplus food, manages a lengthening list of volunteers itching to do something safely outdoors, and drives contributions to a wholesale produce market where her organization rents a corner of a warehouse refrigerator.
Each of those steps has been slowed by the need to don protective gear, sanitize and maintain social distancing. But the payoff is worth it, because the gleanings these days are often prime produce rather than just leavings. In just two hours at Specca Farms, she and her group bagged more than 500 pounds of spinach for local food pantries.
It has been a busy year for Baker, who also drives donated produce from multiple sources to pop-up food distributions all over New Jersey. Her organization plans to recruit more growers, and has won a grant from the Princeton Area Community Foundation to pay three local farmers to grow an acre of food that Harvest for Hunger will gather later this year.
Gleaners around the country tell similar stories of herculean efforts, all hastily arranged to meet the fast-growing need.
In San Luis Obispo, California, a food bank program called GleanSLO has pivoted from staging fruit-gleaning parties around the Central Coast’s abundant backyard fruit trees, to working the fields at farms that used to sell their produce wholesale to food services.
At one farm, “we were picking from bushes that were loaded with berries that hadn’t been touched,” said Emily Wilson, 29, the group’s program coordinator, with a note of disbelief. “A thousand pounds of blueberries.”
In Kansas City, Missouri, a group called After the Harvest is fielding call after call from farmers who want volunteers to come pick up harvests they can’t sell. “Early on it was spinach, arugula, beautiful red-leaf lettuce, kale,” said Zach Callaway, 32, a gleaning manager with the 6-year-old organization. “You know, high-end stuff that usually went to restaurants.”
That’s all in addition to its regular summer gleaning at the farms that surround the metropolitan region, Callaway said; by late August that usually involves 10 trips per week. This year the group is also getting edible crops from the Kansas City botanical garden and the gardens at public schools.
When the pandemic began, After the Harvest considered suspending its gleaning program altogether. Now Callaway is hoping his organization will get grant money for a few more trucks to transport food.
“We’ve gotten every grant we’ve applied for,” said Barbara Eiswerth, the founder of the 17-year-old Iskashitaa Refugee Network in Tucson, Arizona, whose gleaning crews include refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. They usually take part of what they pick for their extended families.
Her volunteers used to meet three days a week, then pile into a handful of cars to go pick, said Eiswerth, 58. “Now with COVID-19,” she said, “the seniors can’t come, the interns can’t come, and many of the refugees are elderly or immunocompromised.”
She has since recruited more than 70 new volunteers who go out on solo or family-only gleaning trips, and help collect food from bakeries, distributors and concessionaires on the state’s many shuttered RV campsites. Those donations are packed into boxes and delivered to the 11 apartment complexes where many of the area’s refugees live, as well as to several hunger relief agencies.
With help from an online agricultural-sales platform called Forager and COVID-19 grant money from a food waste-focused nonprofit called ReFED, her organization even delivered 2,100 pounds of produce to the quarantined Indigenous community in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation — a six-hour drive each way.
It has been an equally intense spring at the Orlando, Florida, office of the Society of St. Andrew, a gleaning group with roots in the United Methodist Church and programs across the Southeast, Ohio and Indiana.
The pandemic arrived smack in the middle of the busiest season for Florida vegetable farmers, who supply both the local tourist economy and the rest of the country with pallets of produce from September to May. By early March, the office was getting calls from growers who were selling less than they had expected, or whose contracts with the region’s convention centers, hotels and distributors had fallen through — including one whose cucumbers normally went to Vlasic Pickles.
“He said, ‘It’s the best crop I ever had. It doesn’t pay to harvest it,’” said Barbara Sayles, 65, the group’s regional director. “‘You better bring your people out to pick.’”
The need for food relief was still so acute that she began cold-calling farmers who had won bids from Farmers to Families Food Box, a new program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that pays them to donate unsold produce to hunger relief programs. Many growers, Sayles said, had no idea whom to give it to or how to get it there.
Along with several other groups — Food Forward in Los Angeles, Boston Area Gleaners in Massachusetts and other Society of St. Andrew teams — her office is helping farmers distribute, sort and fill those boxes, which must contain a mix of vegetables. In Florida, Sayles is working with the local arm of Service Trades Council Union to give boxes to its members who had been furloughed by Walt Disney World.
These are among the success stories shared at the online meetings of the 4-year-old Association of Gleaning Organizations, based in Salt Lake City. Part of its mission is to help its “200-ish” members learn from their colleagues, said the association’s founder, Shawn Peterson, 37. Its ultimate goal, he said, is to collect as much food as possible from the nation’s fields.
Accurate numbers on just how much that is are hard to come by, he said, but two studies last year — one by researchers at North Carolina State University and another by those at Santa Clara University in California — determined that about one-third of all edible crops grown in the United States likely went unharvested.
In truth, gleaning gathers a very small fraction of what is surely billions of pounds of produce, most of which is simply worked back into the soil. It also yields far less than other surplus-food programs, where donations from supermarkets and distribution hubs are measured not by the garbage bag, but the tractor-trailer.
But gleaning is still important, Peterson said. “What gleaners do really well is work within the spaces missed by more traditional food recovery and hunger programs,” he said.
They can pick a farm’s fragile greens on 24 hours’ notice, set out a free box of tomatoes still warm from the sun at a rural library, or deliver pints of delicate, just-picked raspberries to a nearby food pantry lacking a refrigerator, on the same day it gives out food.
That’s why Harvest Against Hunger, in Seattle, eventually added gleaning to its larger food-rescue programs, said David Bobanick, 54, its executive director. Today, the 38-year-old organization also runs a national gleaning incubator program through AmeriCorps VISTA that aims to create operations that are tailored to meet the specific needs of their region.
This year, that should also mean financial support for farms that donate the food, most of which aren’t able to participate in the Farmers to Families Food Box program, Bobanick said. His organization is one of several that have recently won funding to broker arrangements between hunger relief organizations and farmers who can’t sell their crops.
This is also a goal of the sales platform Forager, which will use the rest of its ReFED grant to introduce a new tool that will connect gleaning groups to agencies with funds to buy food. Most of the money will go to the farmer, but a portion will also go to the gleaning group to cover the costs of distribution, said Erica Merritt, 29, who is coordinating the effort.
The idea arose when the obvious became clear, she said: “Gleaners are literally in this unique position between the farms that can’t sell their food, and the people that are hungry.”