14.3 million pounds of food goes to waste on Vermont farms every summer. At the invitation of the farmers, non-profits like Community Harvest of Central Vermont organize people to pick fruits, vegetables, and berries that are unsalable by the farmer. This process of gleaning saves millions of pounds of food from the waste stream each year, while getting nutritious, locally grown produce to vulnerable neighbors.
“We try to engage as many age groups, and people from different backgrounds as possible. They come to the field and meet new friends and neighbors in a common purpose,” said Allison Levin, Community Harvest’s founder and director. “Being in the field is very different than driving by it. It gives you a different perspective. You’ll never see that field like you did when it was just from the road again.”
Gleaning gives volunteers a new appreciation of the food they are eating, what it takes to produce it, and what the underlying cost drivers are. Farming is hard labor, and it takes a bit of luck too. The crops are at the whim of the sun coming out and the rain coming down. The experience of being in the fields brings people closer to their food in support of their neighbors who don’t have enough good food to eat. It also creates a deep connection and loyalty to their host farm. Gleaning is not all easy, however.
“With the larger farms, it takes a lot of work to plan a glean,” says George Gross, owner of Dog River Farm in Berlin, reflecting on Vermont’s short growing season. “We need to turn our field over as quickly as possible to get the next crop in the ground.” This quick turn-around can make it difficult to get volunteers in the field and onto the wash line at just the right time. A perfect gleaning situation for Dog River Farm is when a volunteer is working right alongside George and his team to pull the produce that they pass over.
“If we had a volunteer on-call on any given day, there would be a lot more that we could move into a glean,” George says. “When we are washing 20 bushels of beets, if there was someone standing here working with us, the volunteer can pull gleaned items aside. We need to move on and move quickly.”
If someone is interested in volunteering to be a gleaner on call, they can visit the Vermont Gleaning Collective to register and learn more. For now, Dog River Farm keeps a bushel basket in the cooler that is filled with culled food from the organic farm stand each day, which Levin picks up twice a week. The silver lining of the produce that isn’t able to be gleaned is that it becomes food for the soil, building a more sustainable organic farm.
"As gleaners we are connectors—helping the community grow stronger and better able to feed itself. This year more than ever we are bringing people together to do what is needed to keep us all safe and fed,” said Levin.
Gleaning connects volunteers with the food system, creating a better understanding of how food is grown and processed for use, and the importance of a clean water system. When people come together to volunteer, their sense of community and connection is underscored. School groups, in normal years, gather in the field to glean, creating educational opportunities for kids to learn where their food comes from, and what it takes to bring it from a seed to their dinner table, an endeavor that Vermont Farm to School and Vermont Farm to Plate are working to integrate into the educational fabric of schools.
Even with the efforts of gleaning organizations across the state, a staggering amount of food still goes to waste on Vermont farms every year.
Become a gleaner!
As the growing season comes to a close, there are many opportunities across Vermont to take to the fields and help feed your neighbors. Visit the Vermont Gleaning Collective to register as a volunteer and to learn more.