Sustainable America Blog

Gleaning to Reduce Food Waste

Captured in Jean Francois Millet’s famous painting The Gleaners, the ancient practice of gleaning—collecting leftover crops from a farmer’s field after harvest—was an early form of welfare for the needy. It turns out that the practice is alive and well, and could be one of many ways to reduce the enormous amount of food waste in the United States.

Even with today’s modern harvesting techniques, unharvested food is often still left in the fields. In fact, 7 to 10 percent of the food grown in this country never leaves the farm for a variety of reasons; some is missed during harvesting and some is not deemed pretty enough for supermarket shelves. Weather and issues of supply and demand also affect how much food is wasted at the farm level.

The Society of Saint Andrew (SoSA) is a faith-based group that focuses on gleaning and redistributing produce in the Southeast and out West. In an interview with NPR, Linda Tozer of SoSA explained, “What we are trying to do is build a network that will take food that would not make it to market for a variety of reasons, and get it to agencies that are feeding the hungry.”

Farmers who donate excess or unsightly produce can receive a tax deduction for their donation, but the trick often is timing. Farmers have only a few days after they decide that they’ve sold all they can before the leftover food will begin to rot. For SoSA this means assembling an army of volunteers to show up at the drop of a hat to gather food. This expansive network of volunteer labor allows SoSA to keep their costs down to just 2.4 cents per portion of gleaned food.

Peaceful Belly Farm outside of Boise, Idaho, encourages gleaning. They invite people from the local food bank or anyone who wants to participate to follow behind their combine harvester and glean any remaining produce for free.

Parker Farms in Oak Grove, Virginia, has been encouraging gleaning on their over 3,000 acres of farmlands since the 1980s. The farm’s general manager Rod Parker explained to The Daily Beast, “The biggest value to the farm is that product that was raised for the purpose of consumption, is consumed.” Most times, the food left behind is simply not cosmetically appropriate for sale. But as Parker aptly points out, “A curved cucumber, when you slice it, nobody knows it was ever curved.”

The practice of gleaning doesn’t have to take place only at the farm. Glean for the City is a project of Bread for the City, a Washington DC nonprofit concerned with helping DC’s most vulnerable citizens. They salvage thousands of pounds of produce from farmer’s markets and individual gardeners each year for redistribution to the poor.

Food waste is a massive problem in America today. A recent NRDC report showed that Americans waste a full 40% of the food that is produced. This waste occurs at the farm, during distribution and at home when we throw out uneaten food every day. Reducing food waste helps to increase food availability, a core mission of Sustainable America. The practice of gleaning is a perfect example of how simple steps can achieve great results and become a win-win proposition for everyone.

If you’re interested in starting a gleaning program in your area, the USDA has put together this helpful gleaning toolkit to get you started.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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