Come on, admit it. At some point in your life you’ve exuberantly purchased a six-pack (or two) of zucchini starts in the spring, and six months later your friends and neighbors are fearfully hiding from you because you’re always looking to pawn off zucchini the size of small canoes.
Examples of such overabundance exist wherever food is grown – from backyard gardens to large commercial scale operations. The sad fact is that much of that food goes entirely to waste, with some estimates putting the figure at one-third of all the food grown worldwide. True, some is loss to pests or other field conditions, but most is just left to rot because it’s not cosmetically up to par for market (consumers want perfect looking produce) or because the infrastructure is insufficient for getting it to market.
Enter the concept of gleaning. The verb “to glean” is typically applied to information or to agriculture. In the case of the latter, Merriam-Webster defines it as such: “to gather grain or other produce left by reapers,” “to pick up after a reaper,” “to strip (as a field) of the leavings of reapers.”
Basically then, gleaners are picking up leftovers, waste, what others don’t want and/or can’t harvest, and redistributing it to those in need. Think of it as the agricultural version of Robin Hood, without the rich/poor thing, the archery, and the tights. It’s a concept that has been steadily gaining worldwide steam, especially as we face not only the challenges of feeding people but also the challenges of dwindling natural resources.
In San Luis ObispoCounty, agriculture is a predominant industry, so it’s an avoidable given that there is food waste. Enter GleanSLO, a grassroots effort that started in 2010 as Backyard Harvest. Now operating under the auspices of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, GleanSLO coordinates food growers willing to have their produce gleaned – whether private gardens or commercial operations – with volunteer gleaners. Once gleaned, the fresh produce is distributed via the Food Bank to needy county residents.
The success of the GleanSLO program is pretty impressive. In 2010, 22,000 pounds of food were harvested that would have otherwise gone to waste. In 2011, it was 37, 988 pounds. In 2012, 99,165 pounds. So far, just as of this writing in April 2013, 39,919 pounds of produce have been harvested and distributed to needy people in the community … my community.
I recently went on my first glean, and will definitely be doing it again. On a beautiful spring morning, I met up with the two GleanSLO coordinators and a handful of other volunteers (ranging from retired to grade school age) at an orchard in rural Nipomo. The property was set back on the hills, which afforded us all a stunning panoramic view of the coastline as we plucked, picked, and pulled 1,945 pounds of oranges over the next two hours.
Two hours. 1,945 pounds of fresh produce. Fresh air. Getting to see beautiful rural properties. Exercise. Meeting new people with community spirit. Helping to feed healthy food to hungry people. Doesn’t get much better than that!