BAR HARBOR, Maine — Chris Brown is on a one-man mission to interrupt the food-waste stream and feed the masses.
He runs a farm in Otter Creek, where he has dozens of pigs in makeshift pens made from pallets and other scrap wood. He has been raising hogs nearly a decade, but you won’t ever find him buying grain or pre-mixed pig food.
Brown gathers food, for people and pigs, through a process called “gleaning,” the gathering of edible food that would otherwise go to waste.
He’s able keep the pig bellies full — plus those of the hungry hordes he feeds weekly at a soup kitchen he runs in Bar Harbor — because of inherently wasteful modern food production and distribution practices.
Supermarkets want only the most appealing products on their shelves, so they throw away bruised or nicked products, and some ugly produce doesn’t even make it out of the fields. Restaurants throw away tons of food every year.
A report published recently by the National Resources Defense Council says Americans throw away 40 percent of their food, with waste at all steps, from farm to plate. That’s $165 billion dollars worth of food every year, or 20 pounds of food per person, per month. The council determined that if waste were cut by just 15 percent, the country “could feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.”
An ancient practice, revised
People have been gleaning for thousands of years, and references to the practice can even be found in the Old Testament. Traditionally, the process referred to collecting leftover crops after a farmer’s fields had been commercially harvested, or gathering produce from fields where it wouldn’t be profitable to conduct a harvest.
“This is a revitalization. Gleaning’s been around since dirt,” Brown said on Friday, during his daily food gathering routine, which he calls a “pull.” On a good week, Brown claims he’ll pull nearly three tons of food.
Brown is a modern-day gleaner; He doesn’t just pick up fruits and veggies left after farmers have harvested their fill, though he does that too. He salvages food from restaurants, bakeries and supermarkets.
There’s produce that’s slightly bruised, day-old bread and scraps of food discarded by chefs and prep cooks. None of this food is bad. It’s just not always pretty.
“The stores want to sell unblemished, shiny food,” he said. “It’s easy for them to just toss things out. So I’m there to get it. They’re in the business of selling you tomorrow’s bread. I’m in the business of taking today’s bread.”
One of his regular stops is Jordan Pond House in Acadia National Park, where on Friday Brown picked up roughly 150 pounds of day-old popovers, too stale for human consumption but great for pig food.
“He picks up our leftover stuff, which otherwise would’ve just been thrown out,” said John Wight, a chef at Jordan Pond House. “It reduces our waste cost, which is nice, but it also helps the community and helps Chris out.”
Brown’s activities are covered under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996, part of a Food and Drug Administration gleaning initiative. The act encourages the donation of food by minimizing donor liability, except in cases of gross negligence.
It establishes the standard of “apparently wholesome” foods, which are fit for human consumption. Food is apparently wholesome if it “meets all quality and labeling standards imposed by federal, state, and local laws and regulations even though the food may not be readily marketable due to appearance, age, freshness, grade, size, surplus, or other conditions.”
After a pull, the apparently wholesome food is set aside. Everything else goes to the hogs at Brown Family Farm, but even that stuff benefits people, Brown said. He donates pork to soup kitchens, including the weekly one he hosts at the Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church in Bar Harbor.
He has done 40 weeks of “Food For All” community meals, where he puts out three soups and an entree, usually made of meat he produced at his farm. He also sets out boxes of apparently wholesome food for people to take home.
Right now, gleaning is keeping the hogs and the people happy, Brown said. But he has a bigger vision than that. He’s starting a nonprofit corporation called “Organic Recyclers,” to educate people about food waste, gleaning and service.
“I’ve gleaned everything at my farm,” he said. “I can teach anyone to raise hogs.”
Soup made from gleaned products could be hermetically sealed, he said, making it safe to store at room temperature. Brown dreams of food drops in emergency zones, helicopters delivering to troubled regions soup made from gleaned food.
“Bakery waste” is already an acceptable ingredient in grain mixes for farm animals, Brown said. So gleaned, day-old bread could be dried and processed into pellet form, increasing its shelf life and keeping it in the food supply instead of the waste stream.
Hancock County Gleaning Initiative
Brown will soon be in good gleaning company, as the University of Maine Cooperative Extension office in Ellsworth begins work to launch a countywide gleaning initiative. The extension, with the assistance of the City of Ellsworth, recently received a $50,000 Community Development Block Grant to establish the Hancock County Gleaning Initiative.
Education Director Marjorie Peronto said food gleaned through the program will be donated to the 11 food pantries and five soup kitchens operating in the county, including Brown’s operation in Bar Harbor.
The Cooperative Extension has gleaned here and there for years, Peronto said, but this is the first time they’ll be able to afford a full-time gleaning coordinator.
“We started organizing annual gleaning events at Johnston Apple Farms [in Ellsworth], and we were amazed by the tonnage,” she said. “When the season’s over, it’s over. He closes, but there are still good apples on the trees.”
Last year, in half a day, extension volunteers gleaned 4,500 pounds of apples, 200 pounds of carrots and 262 pounds of winter squash. At a normal price of about $1.69 per pound, that’s more than $8,000 worth of produce. For free.
Peronto said it’s more important than ever to capture food before it’s wasted. Food pantries and soup kitchens in the county tell her they’ve strained to keep up with demand.
“What we’re hearing is that since 2008, their numbers have been constantly growing,” she said.
The Cooperative Extension hopes to have their gleaning coordinator hired by February, in time to begin building relationships with farmers and retailers to secure apparently wholesome food for the needy.
Meanwhile, Brown will keep doing his thing.
“We need to honor that this food has been produced,” he said while loading popovers into his truck. “It’s unnatural to let so much food go to waste.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.