By Abigail Blinn
The food system produces 4,600 calories per person per day in the United States – yet the recommended calorie intake per person is anywhere from 2,000 to 2,800 calories per day. That leaves about 40% of food produced uneaten. Where does the food go? Food is lost within the food supply chain at farms, processing and distribution sites, grocery stores, restaurants, and in households.
This is a troubling statistic considering one in ten households in the United States report food insecurity in the year of 2018, a ratio that is expected to increase with the current unemployment rate related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What contributes to food waste?
- On the farm – Farmers typically do an incredible job at using all food that’s produced – as it is hard work! However, some produce that is not marketable is placed into the “seconds” category or is not harvested due to the labor cost exceeding profit potential.
- Processing – Many edible parts of foods are thrown away to make packaging and consumer use easier.
- Distribution channels – Inevitably, food moving within the distribution channel can spoil, especially more vulnerable items such as greens or peaches.
- Grocery stores – Fruits, vegetables, bread, dairy, eggs, or shelf-stable items all have an expiration date. When these items are not purchased, an alternative outlet is needed or the food is thrown away.
- Restaurants – Similar to grocery stores, if food products are not used or sold fresh, they are often thrown away or donated.
- Households – Consumers throw out food for a number of reasons including wishful thinking, making too large of portion size, uninterested in leftover foods, or lack of kitchen knowhow when it comes to food storage and preservation.
The first priority is creating less surplus to save resources and money. Though, a huge effort in food recovery has swept the nation to combat food waste and address food insecurity. Many have used the term “gleaning” to describe this food collection process. This is where families and individuals, usually volunteers, collect leftover produce from the mentioned sites above; farms, grocery stores, or restaurants. Gleaning organizations coordinate with sites that have excess food and communicate opportunities to volunteers while handling logistics such as providing supplies and insurance for volunteers, and keeping track of what is collected. Many gleaning models have volunteers keep as much of the share as they would like, and the rest can be given to identified families in need or donated to food banks and pantries. Volunteers often include college students, low-income families and individuals, and seniors.
Pictures featuring a volunteer (me) harvesting carrots and beets, and a typical bag of produce for volunteers or sponsored families.
One greenhouse glean resulted in 10 lbs of lettuce, able to be donated to a community meal site. Greenhouses can extend the growing season quite a bit – these were picked early fall!
And when there is time, a group took part of a cabbage and carrot harvest to make sauerkraut and kimchi!
Blueberries! This farm provided bags and buckets, but typically whoever is organizing the glean will secure materials needed. Some basic harvesting knowledge is needed for volunteers to harvest.
Many gleaning organizations have working relationships with food banks in the area. Food Banks around the country have redistributed excess food for the past several decades, but are often reliant on donations. Typically, food banks or pantries do not have the capacity to search for and recover wasted food, especially on farms.
These pictures feature gleaning opportunities in PA, NH, and OR, but there is an interest in bringing gleaning to Southeast AK! Although there are not many farms in Southeast Alaska, gleaning opportunities still abound, such as with fish heads, bellies, collars and other edible parts discarded by the seafood industry. What gleaning opportunities do you see in your community?
Some recommended education material and tips to get started:
Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders – a guide to eating well and saving money by wasting less food
The National Gleaning Project has a map of participating organizations, reports and research on gleaning. A great place to learn more!
Talk with food growers in the area, grocery stores, and restaurants to see what they do with excess food – is it being thrown away? Donated?
Questions or comments? Feel free to email or call Abigail Blinn, BS, RDN at firstname.lastname@example.org, (717) 398-5907.
Abigail is originally from Gettysburg, PA. She grew up in apple country, where she worked on various apple and peach orchards as a teenager. In college, she studied nutrition, focusing on agriculture and food insecurity. She co-created Penn States’ Food Systems Coalition to address issues of food waste and food insecurity on campus, and this is where much of the food resource building began!
She moved to Oregon after receiving her Registered Dietitian credentials and began working for the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network. There she worked with farmers, local processors, restaurants, school nutrition staff, and educators to improve school lunches in the state of Oregon. She believes access to nutritious food is a human right, not a privilege, and continues to find creative solutions and opportunities for access to food that is farmed responsibly and regional! Gleaning is a part of that solution.
Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders