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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.

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Almquist's quest to introduce gleaning is "quite inspiring," says Ms. Snow, who is acting as her mentor for the fellowship. "She has tremendous energy and drive and sees her potential to make an impact."

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Gleaning often means harvesting what a farmer can't sell, such as produce that has a bruise or mark on it. Sometimes the vegetable may be the wrong size (too large or small) or the wrong shape. Other times, farmers simply overplant and don't have time to harvest it all.

"It's been incredible how open farmers are to the idea of gleaning and how generous they've been," she says. "Farmers don't like to see food go to waste when they've worked so hard to grow it."

Another form of gleaning involves hauling away leftover produce from a farmers' market at the end of the day. "It's such a simple concept – the food is already harvested," she says. Farmers don't want to have to pack up produce and haul it back to their farms to compost it.

What kinds of crops can be gleaned?

"Probably any crop you can think of I've gleaned," Almquist says. Her hardest task has been picking beans, she says with a laugh. "It's so labor-intensive to pick green beans. You can spend three hours and get 10 lbs. of green beans. It doesn't always feel worthwhile."

There can be other challenges too. On some farms, she says, "The weeds were so out of control that it was more like a scavenger hunt to try to find vegetables in the ground."

Her favorite glean has been raspberries.

"People are so excited to get fresh fruit, especially berries," she says. "Those are so rare for people who eat from the food shelf." They can eat the fruit immediately, while "they may not know what to do with a bunch of kale."

After she stops gleaning for the winter, Almquist plans to teach cooking and nutrition classes, helping food-shelf visitors learn how to blend fresh foods into their diets. One idea: Place easy recipe cards in front of the produce. "This is what you can do with turnips," for example.

Ideally, people who take free food from a food shelf would help with gleaning. But "that's really a time issue," she says. "Many of the people using the food shelf are working multiple jobs and are already struggling to find time to cook and feed their families. They don't necessarily have time to come out and help pick."

Food shelves also need to shift their thinking to accommodate gleaned food. Many aren't prepared to store perishable commodities.

"Some food shelves are still reluctant to take [fresh food]. They're not sure what to do with it or whether their clients will want it," she says. "Part of the challenge with gleaning is finding food shelves with cold-storage facilities and space to refrigerate things."

Another challenge is to time gleaning to the schedule of the food pantries, which may be open only once a week or less.

Besides introducing fresh food into the diets of those who rely on food shelves, gleaning also leaves a smaller carbon footprint. The produce travels perhaps 10 or 15 miles "instead of thousands of miles – and arriving really tired and stale," she says.

Almquist grew up in New Jersey ("the Garden State," she points out) an hour outside New York City. She worked on an organic farm in Vermont for a semester as a high school junior, which instilled a love of growing things.

But she had made a special connection with one plant long before then, as a preschooler.

"I befriended this giant bush in my backyard," she says with a smile. "I would talk with it for hours at a time, telling it my 4-year-old woes. And the bush would talk back."