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Gleaning for good: an old idea is new again

Picking crops that would otherwise be left in a garden or field to rot, and sharing them with those in need, is a time-honored idea that's gaining fresh momentum today.

By Sarah HenryShareable / April 9, 2012

Greeks wait to receive free onions and other vegetables offered by farmers in Syntagma Square in Athens last January. In the US, many organizations work to share leftover fruits and vegetables with those in need, based on the ancient idea known as gleaning.

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters/File

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Foraging for food – whether it's ferreting rare mushrooms in the woods, picking abundant lemons from an overlooked tree, or gathering berries from an abandoned lot – is all the rage among the culinary crowd and the D.I.Y. set, who share their finds with fellow food lovers in fancy restaurant meals or humble home suppers.

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But an old-fashioned concept – gleaning for the greater good by harvesting unwanted or leftover produce from farms or family gardens–  is also making a comeback during these continued lean economic times.

In cities, rural communities, and suburbs across the country, volunteer pickers join forces to collect bags and boxes of fruits and vegetables that find their way to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and food pantries, as well as senior centers, low-income homes, and school lunch programs.

 IN PICTURES: Urban gardens

Where some may see excess, others see opportunity – the chance to make a difference, feed the hungry, and avoid waste. It's a win-win-win all round: Growers who have surplus or seconds find a good home for these edibles beyond the compost pile; financially strapped aid organizations get much-needed fresh food for free for their patrons; and the gleaners get to give back in their communities.

"I've been surprised at how emotionally rewarding this is," says Andrew Sigal, an avid gardener in Oakland, Calif., who started Food Pool last summer to share the abundance from his prolific 800-square-foot garden with local food pantries. "It's one thing to give someone in need a dollar or a donation, but seeing someone get excited about beans from my backyard has been deeply fulfilling."

Some gleaners have even made a national name for themselves. Take The Lemon Lady, aka Anna Chan, a stay-at-home mom who began collecting excess fruit in suburban Clayton, Calif., while driving her then-baby daughter around to nap. Ms. Chan, who knew hunger as a child and how it felt to wait in food lines for canned goods, was shocked to see so much fresh fruit – such as oranges, apricots, and apples – left rotting in her neighbors' front yards. So she started a single-handed campaign to do something about it.

Three years on, and hundreds of tons of produce later, Chan, who is now a regular fixture at local farmers' markets where she collects unsold fruits and vegetables that she hauls to a local food pantry and Salvation Army site, has been featured in People, The Huffington Post, and Civil Eats. While the press attention has helped her cause, she keeps a laser-like focus on her mission to feed those in need.

“Many people don’t know where their local food pantry is located and don’t realize that food banks will gladly take fresh produce,” says Chan, who encourages people to get started by picking excess fruits and veggies in their immediate area and passing it on.

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