Gleaning is an ancient tradition that’s been part of the agricultural world for many centuries. It’s simply the act of collecting excess fresh food and sharing it with others, though the term is generally used to mean harvesting leftover food from fields.
In the past, those in need were given the opportunity to gather leftover food from fields after harvest; today, volunteers from nonprofit groups tend to collect the food and take it to a local group for distribution to those in need.
Fortunately, anyone donating food who takes necessary precautions to ensure its safety is protected under 1996’s Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, so the donor is protected if any of the donated food becomes a health hazard.
Benefits of Gleaning
There are many benefits to gleaning, such as:
- Feeds hungry people and provides access to fresh, nutritious foods. Many of these people aren’t able to buy healthy, local foods because of cost or it simply isn’t available in their area
- Helps reduce food waste
- Less produce in the field means less methane emissions, which helps curb greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change
- Provides resources to nonprofit agencies so they might better serve those in need
- Builds good relations between community members, local gardeners, and farmers
Types of Gleaning
Some people define gleaning as removing excess produce from a farmer’s field, but there are even more types, including:
- Farm gleaning – According to a study from Santa Clara University, over 30% of food is left in a field after harvesting
- Garden gleaning – With a homeowner’s permission, volunteers harvest extra produce from the home’s garden
- Urban gleaning – The process of collecting leftover fruits and vegetables in cities and urban areas. Food Forward is a large food rescue organization that has volunteers in the Los Angeles area. Individuals glean fruit and vegetables that will not be sold or eaten from homeowners’ yards, farmers markets and a wholesale market. The group averages 500,000 pounds a week of gleaned food that goes directly to over 1,800 hunger relief organizations around the Los Angeles area
- Public gleaning – Fallen Fruit has developed maps in several cities, showing where food (mainly fruit) hangs over or is found on public land (sidewalks or public parks, for example). Area residents are encouraged to take what they want/need
How to Glean
- Find a place where you can obtain food, such as a farmers market, community garden, local farm, or home gardeners
- Determine which groups in your area are in need of the food you’ll be collecting, such as churches with food programs, senior centers, food pantry, local community organizations and associations. If you’re really motivated, set up your own distribution system and give out food yourself
- Recruit volunteers to help
- Acquire sturdy containers for the food
- Go out and glean!
The USDA has a gleaning toolkit called “Let’s Glean!” so you can start a food rescue program in your area.
Become a Gleaning Resource
If you have a garden – or are thinking of planting a garden! – factor in gleaning opportunities, whether by you or a local group. Plant an extra row or two of tomatoes, spinach – anything you’d like. Either harvest any leftovers and take to a local food pantry, or connect with a gleaning group to have them come in and take your excess food.
AmpleHarvest.org is an interactive map that connects gardeners with food pantries in their area.
If you’d like to join a gleaning group already in existence, you can become part of The Gleaning Network of the Society of St. Andrew. Its 23,000 plus volunteers from states all across the U.S. collected and distributed over 13 million pounds of fresh produce in 2019.
Or you can search the National Gleaning Project’s database to find a gleaning program in your area.