For some, the word “gleaning” evokes Biblical images of women moving through ancient fields to gather enough grain to feed their families or 19th century paintings that show how the tradition continued in old Europe.
It might not sound like something that is happening in Maine right now — but it is. Gleaning, or gathering leftover crops from farm fields after the farmer has done his or her harvest, is becoming a piece that may help solve Maine’s food insecurity puzzle. Hunger and food insecurity, which is being without reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food, is on the rise in Maine while it drops nationwide.
So it was good news that from Saturday, Oct. 7, to Monday, Oct. 16, during the first annual Maine Gleaning Week, gleaners rescued 18,000 pounds of produce that otherwise would have been wasted. From corn to kale to carrots, from green beans to spinach to tomatoes and potatoes, the gleaners harvested 23 varieties of produce from 30 farms and gardens, enough for 75,000 servings of food shared among 35 recipient partners. One of those, the Good Shepherd Food Bank, distributes nutritious food to people in every county in the state. In short: gleaning is one ancient practice clearly is alive and well today in Maine farm fields.
Even with all that help — more than 150 volunteers put their muscle into harvesting the leftover food from around the state last week — they still had to leave a lot of produce behind. That was hard to see, according to Hannah Semler, Maine Gleaning Network coordinator, said. Still, every little bit helps.
“A volunteer this week said to me it is so sad that all of this is staying in the field,” Semler said. “But I said it’s so amazing that we were able to rescue so much of it.”
Gleaning as a practice probably never really went out of fashion. But it started to more officially come back into style here in 2001, when the University of Maine Cooperative Extension launched Maine Harvest for Hunger. That program asked gardeners and farmers to donate their extra fruits and vegetables to people in need and took advantage of yearly gleaning opportunities. When Semler was hired a few years ago to be a full-time gleaning coordinator at Healthy Acadia, a nonprofit agency that serves Washington and Hancock counties, she found that a lot of people already knew about gleaning.
“We quickly developed relationships with more than 30 farms in the area,” she said. “It was a way for farms to engage their community, through outreach, tax deductions and the kinds of connections that can be made with more people coming onto your farm. Gleaning as a modern-day practice is more than getting food off the ground. It’s about creating a story and narrative, a new story of how food gets to people and how we support our local communities.”
Different farms have surplus crops for different reasons, she said. Some produce might be left behind after the mechanical or human harvesters have been through the fields once. Other vegetables or fruits might be too blemished or ugly to sell at a grocery store or at market. Sometimes, as with corn, whole fields can be abandoned if a high enough percentage of the crop is damaged.
“There’s a moment of, ‘Wow, how is it possible that not all food that’s grown gets distributed?’” Semler said. “The idea that this beautiful, lovely, delicious corn is left on fields to rot or to be tilled in — I think it’s just as hard for the farmer. People want to rescue that food.”
She and the other people working to promote gleaning in Maine said they do not have all the answers yet. It’s still a work in progress, trying to figure out what longer term solutions are that can help address big questions such as food insecurity and food waste. In Unity, Mary Leaming of Unity Barn Raisers helped to start the Western Waldo County Gleaners last year. The practice feels especially important in the geographic area her agency serves, she said.
“We’re rich in farmers and producers, and we’re also really rich in people with needs,” she said.
Last year, the group was able to rescue about 12,000 pounds of produce. This year they’ve gleaned 14,000 pounds of food and counting, with the rescued food distributed through the Unity Volunteer Regional Food Pantry, the Open Door Soup Kitchen, through drop-offs at low-income housing complexes and in other ways.
“That’s less money they have to spend on fresh vegetables,” Leaming said. “The benefits are trying to reduce food waste, trying to get more healthy food into the relief system and offering a tax reduction to farmers if they choose that.”
Local farms and businesses such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which is based in Winslow, have been generous with the Western Waldo County Gleaners, Leaming said. She called the seed company a key partner that continues to let her know when trial crops are ready to harvest.
“I have the volunteers, I have the transportation, I have a place to bring it to,” she said. We find that these folks are naturally very generous. They don’t know how to go about getting rid of some of this food. It probably is easier to give it to the pigs. For folks that naturally want to give back, we want to make it really simple for them. If the program is established and streamlined, it works for everybody.”