by Cathy Snyder
By 2030, the world’s population will exceed 8.6 billion people, all of whom will need access to healthy food. Much needs to change if we are to meet the challenge. Americans waste as much as 40% of all food grown. Considering all the resources that go into producing that food, water, fertilizers, labor and fuel, this is clearly not a sustainable path for our country. Better practices are needed to efficiently utilize our finite amounts of land and natural resources. Fortunately, many solutions are in the works, and are finally getting the media attention needed to push an entire anti-food-waste movement forward.
“We and many other organizations remain passionate advocates for hunger relief, food justice and food equality, food recovery and good environmental stewardship.”
One solution that organizations like Rolling Harvest Food Rescue in Bucks County and Easton Hunger Coalition in the Lehigh Valley are spearheading is the practice of gleaning. While the biblical definition refers to harvesting crops left behind in farmers’ fields, it also relates to all efforts to divert perfectly good food to people who are struggling with hunger and food insecurity. This includes foods that are otherwise destined to pollute our landfills from supermarkets, restaurants, institutions and individuals.
Rolling Harvest Food Rescue’s focus since 2010 has been on partnering with local farmers, making it easier for them to share their surplus with thousands of our neighbors in need. It all began when our founder was volunteering at a local food pantry, witnessing the canned, packaged and processed foods being handed out to families coming for help. She knew we were in a rich agricultural region and began reaching out to local farmers and food producers to figure out a way to move their surplus. We now benefit from a dedicated volunteer base of more than 170 people, enabling us to be very responsive to farmers’ needs. We partner with more than 40 local growers and food producers, and more than 60 hunger-relief sites. These sites include food pantries, shelters, community kitchens, health clinics, summer feeding programs for children who lack access to school meals, senior centers and more. Fast-forward to two million pounds already rescued and redistributed, and we are just scratching the surface of all that is available.
There are numerous benefits to both the farmers and the food-insecure recipients:food typically donated to food pantries often lacks the quality and health benefits of locally-grown fruits, vegetables and organic proteins. These are the foods most in demand and out of reach financially for both the pantries and the struggling families needing help. Improving what food pantries can offer will go a long way to helping reverse preventable diet-related illnesses among our food-insecure neighbors, chief among them being diabetes and high blood pressure.
The response from our farm partners has been especially rewarding and surprising. No grower wants to see any of their hard work result in waste, especially among young organic farmers with higher labor costs. Farmers must grow at least 20% more than they need to satisfy their customer base in order to account for weather and pest-related crop losses, labor shortages, and changing tastes. This often leads to surpluses that can then efficiently be rescued and redistributed.
For Rolling Harvest, gleaning opportunities start with a farmer informing us that they have harvested what they need and asking our crew to come for the rest, often with only a day’s notice. Sometimes, they anticipate that a heat wave, early frost or excessive rain will impede their abilities to harvest, and they ask us to come and rescue as much as we can, so the produce can be saved before the crop is spoiled. And sometimes, the veggies are just too irregular or misshapen to be able to take to market, they know that we work with many soup kitchens who will love receiving donations of healthy produce in any form.
2018 was a devastating year of near-constant rain and mud for our local growers. Many of our farm partners tell us this has been their most challenging year in more than a decade. They have experienced widespread crop loss, reduced productivity and financial threats to their sustainability. Yet they continue to reach out to us, even doing much of the hard work to harvest and package the food that is donated. The farmers express sincere gratitude that none of their bounty is going to waste. Many are now growing additional fruits and vegetables on unused acreage specifically for donation.
We and many other organizations remain passionate advocates for hunger relief, food justice and food equality, food recovery and good environmental stewardship. Gleaning is a model that is easily duplicated and essential for sustainable food systems. We are honored to be sharing our experiences with the Easton Hunger Coalition and The Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council as they grow their own food rescue programs.
by Cathy Snyder
Cathy is a food justice activist, and Founder and Executive Director of Rolling Harvest Food Rescue, based in Bucks County.
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)