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Difference Maker

The need to feed hungry families cultivates new interest in gleaning

Corinne Almquist wants to restore the biblical tradition of harvesting what farmers leave behind.

By Staff writer / November 2, 2009

A recent graduate of Vermont’s Middlebury College, Corinne Almquist promotes the practice of distributing produce that would otherwise go to waste to those in need.

Sarah Beth Glicksteen/ The Christian Science Monitor


Cornwall, VT.

Clusters of plump, wine-red Empire apples hang from sagging boughs, yearning to be picked. A small group of volunteers is obliging, quickly filling a truck bed with wooden boxes of fruit.

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They're led by a smiling, energetic young woman, her red hair pulled back and practical rubber boots on her feet, ready for tromping in an orchard on a day that threatens rain.

Later that afternoon Corinne Almquist will deliver some 20 bushels of apples, about 1,000 lbs., to a food shelf for free distribution to hungry local residents. Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall, Vt., where Ms. Almquist and her helpers have been gleaning, can't sell the apples: Most have cosmetic blemishes caused by being pelted in a late summer hailstorm. Though grocery chains won't buy them, they're still tasty and nutritious.

Gleaning – harvesting leftover crops for the poor – is an idea as old as the Bible. In the story of Ruth she gleans in the fields of Boaz and the two fall in love. Leviticus urges farmers to leave the corners of their fields unharvested, providing food for the poor and strangers. The practice was common in 19th-century France, too, celebrated in Jean-François Millet's 1867 painting "The Gleaners," which shows women picking through a harvested wheat field.

But gleaning is also finding modern advocates in the United States as the recession eats a hole in many family budgets.

"This idea of rescuing food that's going to go to waste makes an awful lot of sense to people," says Teresa Snow, program director of agricultural resources at the Vermont Foodbank in South Barre. Gleaning, she says, is growing in popularity "not only across Vermont but across the nation" as hard times are "forcing people to be creative."

"There's so much food available in fields. It's astounding how much is wasted," says Almquist, who graduated from nearby Middlebury College in June with a degree in environmental studies. A 2004 report from the University of Arizona in Tucson estimates that 40 to 50 percent of all the food that could be harvested from fields will never be eaten.

Funded by a year-long fellowship from the Compton Foundation Inc. in Redwood City, Calif., Almquist wants to spread the good word about gleaning throughout northwestern Vermont.

Working with local farmers, and with help from loyal volunteers, in recent weeks she's delivered about 6,000 lbs. of squash, carrots, potatoes, and apples to food shelves or senior centers. Earlier in the summer she gathered cabbage, kale, radishes, and herbs.

"Gleaning isn't really happening on a widespread basis across the United States, and most people haven't even heard of it," Almquist says. "I've found some really wonderful volunteers who are excited about doing this every week and working it into their routine."