In a country that’s grappling with an economic downturn, rising food costs and a surge in requests for food assistance, it might seem absurd that about one-quarter of the food produced nationwide gets thrown away. Yet, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that’s exactly what’s happening: From farmer’s fields to commercial kitchens to markets to schools, some 96 billion pounds of food goes to waste each year—most of it perfectly good. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly 35 million people nationwide are at risk for going without food. Here in Western North Carolina alone, some 115,000 people seek emergency food assistance annually, MANNA FoodBank reports.
The irony of massive food waste and hunger existing side by side isn’t lost on Bill Walker. But rather than bemoan the fact, he’s leading an effort to close the gap. Walker, who works for a nationwide, faith-based nonprofit called the Society of St. Andrew, is the designated “Asheville area gleaning coordinator.” “Gleaning,” a term with biblical origins, means reaping the leftover produce after a field has been harvested. And in rural areas of Western North Carolina, thousands of pounds of salvaged fruits and vegetables may be involved. Through partnerships with local growers, Walker periodically leads teams of volunteers into farmer’s fields to pick produce that wasn’t harvested due to irregularities or market conditions. The food is then boxed up and passed along to people in need.
“Last year, there was a farmer in Polk County, down near Lake Lure, who had grown an immense amount of tomatoes,” Walker recalls. “And the prices on tomatoes plummeted. He couldn’t afford to pick the tomatoes and sell them, so he pulled his workers to go pick squash and peppers and things that were selling. So he called us and we went down and we picked, oh man, thousands and thousands of pounds of tomatoes.” Once the fields were picked over by volunteers, those fresh tomatoes were distributed to a host of organizations that work with populations in need: MANNA FoodBank, homeless shelters, crisis centers and others. Had it not been for the volunteers, the produce might have rotted on the vine.
Such gleaning excursions benefit the farmer as well as the recipients, says Walker. “He gets a tax break for doing that, plus crop insurance is based on the yield—and what we harvest is considered part of their yield. So it increases what they can purchase in crop insurance.”
Another common activity for Society of St. Andrew volunteers is a “potato drop.” That’s when an 18-wheeler dump truck shows up and deposits somewhere around 40,000 pounds of potatoes (sweet potatoes, in the photo above) that have been purged from a large-scale grower’s stockpile to make way for a fresh harvest. “It’s kind of scary when you see it being dropped, and it’s just this huge pile,” says Walker. “And you’re thinking, ‘I’ll never get rid of all of these.’” Yet it doesn’t go to waste, he says, for the simple reason that there are so many people out there who can’t afford to buy nutritious food. Potato drops haven’t been as frequent in recent months, notes Walker, as farmers have had to contend with rising fuel and fertilizer costs.
Joshua Stack, Communications and Marketing Coordinator for MANNA FoodBank, says his group has seen an increased need for assistance as food and fuel prices have spiked. “A big part of our outreach involves nutrition,” he notes, adding that folks who turn to food pantries for groceries typically have a hard time finding fresh, nutritious produce. Last year, the Society of St. Andrew provided MANNA with nearly 59,000 pounds of food; this year, they’ve already contributed nearly 48,000 pounds, according to Stack.
Social justice aside, there’s also an environmental aspect to gleaning. Occasionally, commercial growers haul valueless, unwanted produce to the landfill. But rotting food waste can generate methane—a greenhouse gas more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide—so salvaging food could be counted as a strike against global warming.
For Haywood County farmer Dawn Cox, the practice just makes sense. “Gleaning is utilizing everything we’ve got,” she says. Last year, Cox arranged several gleaning trips for Walker and volunteers, resulting in around 7,000 pounds of harvested food. “Even when it’s gleaned, it’s probably still fresher [than the supermarket],” she notes. “And when people do receive the produce, they could save the seeds—and they could plant them.”
Growers or prospective volunteers interested in learning more about the Society of St. Andrew may call 273-0025 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.