For many, October is harvest month. Those with gardens are flooded with tomatoes, zucchini and squash, enough so they share generously with their neighbors and friends. Farms all over the state have the most variety they have had all year, and farm markets are filled with color. Unfortunately, those same farms are often left with hundreds of pounds of fruit and vegetables which are not suitable for sale, either because of appearance or size. A spokesperson at Backyard Farms indicated that tomatoes which are not absolutely perfect and don’t meet their high-quality standards are sold to restaurants to be used to make tomato sauce. According to the documentary Just Eat It, there are size requirements for much of the produce that is sold at supermarkets. Bananas, for example, must fit inside a device that looks like a carpenter’s square. Bananas that don’t meet this standard are often left on the ground to rot. Harvesting them is just too expensive and labor-intensive for most farmers. Yet, at the same time, some of our neighbors are going without food. One solution to this inequity is gleaning, an effort to reduce food waste and increase access to healthy food for all.
Gleaning, or food rescue, is defined by the Maine Gleaning Network as: “gathering of produce after or during an active harvest and donating the produce to humans rather than for compost or for animal feed. The produce gleaned could be used for direct distribution to those in need of emergency food or it could be processed at a soup kitchen.”
In other words, some vegetables may look ugly, but they can still taste pretty good, especially to families that struggle with food insecurity. Grocery stores may reject a carrot because it is misshapen; however, the carrot still tastes like a carrot and has the same nutritional value. A 2016 report by ReFed estimates that 20 billion pounds of produce were left out in fields across the country, for mostly cosmetic reasons.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 15.8% of Maine households, or about 200,000 Mainers, are food insecure. Of this, approximately 20% are children Some of these people receive food assistance through SNAP or WIC programs; others rely on food banks and community food aid programs. These programs are extremely helpful. Individuals who staff these programs need to be congratulated for their dedication to helping others. To expect them to go out into the field and gather leftover produce would take more resources than most programs can spare. While farmers already donate much of their excess food to these programs, farmers often don’t have the time to harvest food that will never go to market.
Hence the creation of Maine Gleaning Network, whose goal is to “ensure that Maine's food system can count on professionalized gleaning and food rescue services to support local farms, community food security, and living economies.” Last year, dozens of volunteers with the Maine Gleaning Network rescued 10,000 pounds of potatoes from a single farm in northern Maine and gleaned a variety of produce from many other locations. This year they are working with local organizations across the state to assemble food rescue teams. They have declared October 7-16th the First Annual Maine Gleaning Week with food rescue events scheduled around the state. To learn more about this organization, check out their web site www.mainegleaningnetwork.org.
To celebrate Maine Gleaning Week, volunteers from Healthy Waterville Action Food Recovery Team and Sustain Mid Maine Coalition’s Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Team are arranging gleaning trips in this local area (see picture left). Some of the food collected will be featured at a table dedicated to rescued food at the Poverty Action Coalition’s Free Community Harvest Dinner on October 17th at the Muskie Center.
Here is how you can help: If you have extra produce to donate, if you would like to help collect food for community meals or service organizations, or if you are interested in receiving rescued food for a community meal contact Healthy Waterville Action Team on Facebook or through their website (http://www.healthynorthernkennebec.me/healthy-waterville/action-team/)
The author Matt Huck is a member of Sustain Mid Maine Coalition’s Permaculture Team and the Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Team. He is also a member of Healthy Waterville Food Recovery Committee. He lives in Fairfield. Sustain Mid Maine Coalition is a grassroots environmental group based in Waterville and Winslow. To learn more about SMMC go to www.sustainmidmaine.org.