Gleaning: an Ancient Idea for Modern Times

Volunteers and farmers team up to reduce food waste

Gleaning zucchini at Jericho Settlers Farm

Gleaning a field of zucchini to find overlooked produce.

Iskashitaa Refugee Network

Members of an Iskashitaa Refugee Network harvesting crew with gleaned squash. Photo: Iskashitaa Refugee Network

If you knew that fresh, healthy, locally grown food was going to waste, would you let it happen?

Volunteer gleaners are gathering food in farm fields, orchards and even backyard gardens to ensure that post-harvest leftovers aren't plowed under or left to rot. Together, they're creating community partnerships and large-scale networks that are making certain more food ends up on tables than in landfills.

"It is absolutely unacceptable that 14 percent of Vermonters are hungry," says Travis Marcotte, executive director of the Intervale Center in Burlington, VT. Though our nation has abundant food resources, hunger extends far beyond Vermont: Feeding America reports that in 2010, 14.5 percent of U.S. households were food insecure, and another 5.4 percent had very low food security. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that up to one-fifth of America's food goes to waste every year. That amount could feed approximately 49 million people.

Gleaning, Past and Present

Unlike the gleanings of ancient and Biblical times -- the Bible instructs farmers to leave portions of their fields, olive groves and vineyards for the poor, while the Koran references charity on the day of harvest and avoiding waste -- today's efforts incorporate organized groups of volunteers. These modern gleaners work not only to harvest, but to distribute and preserve otherwise unwanted food.

The USDA defines gleaning as collecting farm crops left in fields that have been mechanically harvested, or from fields that wouldn't be profitable to harvest. But gleaning organizations have their own ways to define the term.


Salvation Farms volunteers remove kernels from cobs gleaned at Wellsmere Farm in Wells, VT. Photo: Salvation Farms

"Gleaning is the act of going out to the farm ?elds and harvesting surplus vegetables that the farmers will not harvest for market," says Brianna Farver, of Intervale Gleaning and Food Rescue, a Gardener's Supply Company-supported program of the Intervale Center. Theresa Snow, founding director of Salvation Farms in Morrisville, VT, has a similar explanation: "It's the act of reaping after the harvest — putting to use what is thought useless. We capture and manage agricultural surplus by working directly with the food producer."

Barbara Eiswerth, founder of the Iskashitaa Refugee Harvesting Network in Tucson, AZ, expanded the concept of gleaning to make sure her group takes advantage of the area's year-round growing season by collecting from backyard fruit trees and gardens — even fruit trees intended as ornamental plants. "People don't recognize food resources," says Eiswerth, who has a doctorate in arid lands resource sciences. "One lemon tree can produce 3,000 lemons. I say, 'I can take those off your hands!'"

"It all comes back to motivating the community — letting them know how much is out there, how much need there is," she adds. "We want to feed families, not landfills."

How It Helps

Gleaning improves local access to fresh produce for those on limited incomes. Plus, it engages individuals with their local food system, helps farms manage resources, and unites communities. Programs such as those overseen by Farver and Eiswerth make contact with farmers and small growers, organize volunteers, and arrange transportation of food to community partners, such as food shelves and local service organizations. Snow's Salvation Farms advises aspiring and established gleaning organizations, and starts innovative partnerships to make food more accessible.

Prickly pear syrup

Syrup made from gleaned prickly pears, the fruit of a cactus, made by the Iskashitaa Refugee Network.

While many farmers contact gleaning organizations to request assistance, some require outreach. "It's a matter of education; sometimes it takes a personal network," says Eiswerth. "For the most part, people are thrilled to contribute. We have different arrangements with farmers or homeowners, and we always leave it nicer than when we came." Iskashitaa gleaners even harvest protein-rich amaranth, a gluten-free grain that's considered an edible weed, from immature fields.

According to Snow, most farmers don't want their food to go to waste. "A well-organized gleaning operation will build trust and a precedent of being welcomed," she says, and nurture a mutually beneficial relationship.

"Collaboration with community partners is the key to our program," says Farver. "We work directly with the farms at the Intervale ... but we have also let the local farming community know that we are able to take any excess product and distribute it to families in need," Farver says. "On average, we distribute around 1,000 pounds a week."

As an added benefit, gleaning brings together volunteers from all walks of life: college students and refugees, church groups and Girl Scouts. They harvest side-by-side, sharing stories and experience. Time together in the fields or the kitchen — some gleaned foods can be lightly processed for a longer shelf life, freezing or easier preparation — creates friendships and new opportunities. "The refugees actually teach us what the edible resources are," Eiswerth says of her specialized group.

Not Without Challenges

While it seems like gleaning would be a win-win proposition for all involved, there are challenges. Finding steady, reliable financial support is a common theme, as is how to keep gleaning on people's minds when the growing season ends. Snow relies on e-mail and other communication to keep volunteers engaged and aware, while Farver spends the off-season fund-raising, connecting with farmers, evaluating and planning. In Tucson, where there's no climate-dictated downtime, Eiswerth uses her "spare time" to keep Iskashitaa in the news, document stories and collect recipes.

Sometimes foods themselves — such as carob or hot peppers — can make gleaners and partner organizations scratch their heads. Foods that are culturally unfamiliar to the average American can be a hard sell, says Snow: "Kohlrabi. Edamame. What do you do with them?" But when the volunteer or staff member delivering the food has personal knowledge of how to prepare it, along with appropriate quantities of the item, he or she can pass that knowledge along to the person who will distribute it. "It's unusual to see tomatoes and berries," Farver explains, but equally familiar foods like basil, zucchini, cucumbers, kale and greens are abundant this summer.

Getting Started

It's not too late in the season to volunteer for a gleaning project in your community, or to inspire your friends and neighbors to do so.

"It's all about creating relationships and partnerships!" Farver says. "In order to have a successful gleaning project, the community has to be engaged. You need a network of farmers, organizations and volunteers."

Halloween and the harvest season offer unique opportunities to volunteer — or even start a new project. "Every year on Nov. 1, billions of pumpkins go to waste as a food resource," Eiswerth says. "Every city and rural area has a pumpkin patch. So raise awareness around that holiday. There are lots of things you can make besides pumpkin pie, using the seeds, leaves and skin. Get the community behind you and thinking!"

Get Gleaning!

To volunteer as a gleaner in your community, start by contacting your area food bank, food co-op, soup kitchen, community group or faith-based organization and asking about gleaning projects.

Online resources such as Feeding America's Food Bank Locator and can also help you connect with local groups that need volunteers, including gleaners, and with organizations that can accept donations of fresh produce. 

To start a gleaning project of your own, consider starting with these resources:

  • Let's Glean! is a United We Serve toolkit offered online in PDF by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that covers how to start a gleaning program, including finding farmers, volunteers and funding, and offers ideas for other types of food recovery.
  • Sow What?, a book on local food networks published by Girl Scouts of the United States of America, comes highly recommended by Iskashitaa founder, Barbara Eiswerth.

For more information on gleaning, contact any of these gleaning organizations:

  • Intervale Gleaning and Food Rescue aims to improve limited-income Vermonters' access to locally grown, fresh, healthy food. Its ultimate goal is to build community food security in Vermont while strengthening the local food system.
  • Iskashitaa Refugee Network empowers refugees by creating opportunities to better integrate with the larger Tucson community while gaining skills that serve them in America. Iskashitaa harvesters gather around 65,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables each year from backyards and local farms.
  • Salvation Farms provides information on establishing or volunteering with a Vermont gleaning organization, and services to farms. Its founder, Theresa Snow, is developing a statewide network called the Vermont Gleaning Collective.
  • The Society of St. Andrew Gleaning Network operates a nationwide gleaning ministry and maintains eight regional U.S. offices to organize volunteers and distribute food.
  • The Vermont Foodbank, a partner with Intervale Center, gathered and distributed as much as 400,000 pounds of fresh food in Vermont last year with help from its volunteer gleaning network.
  • Plant a Row for the Hungry: Backyard gardeners can help fight hunger in their communities by planting a row in their gardens and donating the harvest to local neighbors.
Pumpkins gleaned by the Iskashitaa Refugee Network

Pumpkins gleaned by the Iskashitaa Refugee Network Photo: Iskashitaa Refugee Network.

Last updated: 12/27/2023