How 'Gleaning' Can Help Prevent Food Loss

Salvation Farms in Vermont is bringing this age-old practice to the modern day.

The Gleaners, engraving
Vintage engraving of 'The Gleaners' after an oil painting by Jean-François Millet. Three peasant women gleaning (collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields) a field of stray stalks of wheat after the harvest.

Getty Images/duncan1890

Salvations Farms in Morrisville, Vermont, is not a farm. But it does offer salvation—to vegetables languishing in fields, in need of buyers and eaters to avoid the disappointing fate of getting plowed back into the earth. And one could say it offers a kind of salvation to people, too, by reconnecting them with an agricultural lifeblood from which they've become far removed in recent decades.

Salvation Farms fulfills many roles, but it is predominantly a gleaning organization. It was that description that attracted this Treehugger writer's attention. "Gleaning" is not a word one hears often these days; it brings to mind ancient proverbs and Biblical references, but it still has relevance today. Gleaning is the act of going into a field and collecting whatever harvest has been left behind. Usually, this is food that's thought of as less valued or not economical to pick. Traditionally it's been a way of feeding the poor, and it can do the same today while reducing food loss.

That is where Salvation Farms' impressive work comes in. Since the early 2000s, when founder and executive director Theresa Snow first discovered gleaning as an AmeriCorps member, she has been on a mission both to help manage Vermont's surplus foods and to reconnect communities with local farms. "You can build resilience and create more strength and less vulnerability when you look for your essential resources close to home," she told Treehugger in a phone conversation. 

Part of Salvation Farms' approach is to send volunteers into fields where farmers cannot harvest or sell their crop, for various reasons. Those volunteers collect, transport, and process the food for resale or donation, depending on who's interested in it. They work with upwards of 50 different crops throughout the growing season and source from dozens of farms, with whom they have established relationships. Volunteers might also go to a farm's wash/pack house to sort through its culls—items that have been deemed unfit for sale—and salvage some of it. 

These gleaned foods are all donated, picked, or picked up at farms. They get distributed within a county region of north-central Vermont, going straight to small agencies that serve customers such as food banks, meal programs, affordable housing, seniors' housing, and rehabilitation programs. 

potato harvest
Potato harvest.

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Snow explains to Treehugger that Salvation Farms' mandate goes beyond strict gleaning. It's focused on answering serious questions like, "What kind of short supply chain responses need to be developed in order to make use of the food that our state is producing to feed more of the people that are here?"

Its programs do not run in perpetuity; the non-profit is willing to model concepts to see what works at a particular point in time. Nor does it work entirely alone; it is a member of the Vermont Gleaning Collective, which comprises a network of organizations doing similar work with over 100 farms in the state, and Snow is a founding board member of the Association of Gleaning Organizations, uniting groups with this same mission across the country.

Additional food collection strategies include acting as a broker between large loads (i.e. several hundred pounds) of a single crop and arranging for its sale and transport to correctional facilities in Vermont. Snow gives the example of 400 pounds of winter squash sitting on a small farm after harvest:

"We would contact our state prisons and see if their meal program would like a large volume of local winter squash. A lot of institutions aren't prepared to handle that kind of food, but our state's prisons engage the inmates in their kitchen, so at times we're able to send a big bin that hasn't necessarily been cleaned or sorted but isn't in bad condition direct from the farm. We buy it, we arrange the transportation to the prison, and then we charge the prison for the product and the shipping. With inmate support they prepare it, either into meals for immediate use, or put it in their freezer for future use."

Salvation Farms has also experimented with running an aggregation hub for surplus food. Snow explains, "In that case a lot of the product is picked by the farmer in very large volume. Instead of our gleaning program and volunteers going, we pay a trucking company to go pick it up and bring it to a place where it can be cleaned and packed and palletized for larger-scale distribution." Volunteers will also sometimes prepare gleaned ingredients as frozen foods. 

In the past, the aggregation hub offered workforce development training to anyone facing barriers to employment—people post-incarceration, with mental and physical disabilities, transitioning from homelessness, migrants, single parents, and more. This was a way of "adding increased value in the output," as Snow explains. "If we're capturing food that needs extra handling to make it clean and ready for an end user, can we help individuals transition into employment by engaging them in the handling process and providing them a lot of additional skills?" 

It added another layer of logistics, she says with a laugh on the phone, but benefited everyone. "People learned hard and soft skills, as well as a lot of compassion for others." She hopes the aggregation hub can relaunch once Salvation Farms finds a new location and the right collaborative partnerships. 

Building those partnerships is a crucial component of Salvation Farms' work. Snow makes it clear the organization does not want to create yet another structural system that creates dependence or vulnerability, so employing various strategies for gleaning and distribution makes the whole thing more resilient in the face of system disruption.

"The more we do this, the more we build reliance on local food, which creates less dependence on food from somewhere else, and that has climate change adaptation implications. If we can do our small part to reduce the global impact of how we choose to feed ourselves, then that's a good thing."

Salvation Farms is careful not to glean food that it cannot redistribute. "We don't want to take food off of farms that might end up in the waste stream," Snow says. That's because she believes the farm is the best place to lose food in the supply chain, if it must go to waste at all. "The farm has already put a lot of time and energy into that food, and sometimes the best thing for a farm to do is till it into their soil, add it to compost, or feed it to animals."

When asked how the pandemic affected things, Snow says that things in Vermont are a little different from other areas of the country when it comes to agriculture. 

"We did have farmers lose some primary markets, but they saw a huge increase in direct-to-consumer opportunities. People wanted to buy CSA shares, shop at the farm stand. They had realizations about the global supply chain and understood that buying local was more secure. Farmers had to navigate changes very quickly, but farmers are some of the smartest, most resourceful people I know... Some of them had the best sales in recent years, ironically."

When it comes to food production, many people just do not understand how it works. "The farmer is not a villain," Snow states firmly, "and I think all too often people don't understand why a farmer is wasting all that food." She explains farmers grow enough to make sure they can meet their market, with extra serving as insurance against weather- and pest-induced losses.

"So the issue is that it's often the marketplace and the consumer that create these kinds of surpluses, and the fact that we don't have localized supply chains or processors that can handle the kind of food that's being produced in such value in certain regions of the country."

Her words echo something chef Dan Barber wrote in an analysis last year on how to save small farms. He too wants to see "a greater number of smaller, regional processors, which gives more options to farmers needing to process their food, to people wanting to buy directly from farmers, and to storeowners wanting to support local growers." Indeed, if such small-scale processors existed, Salvation Farms' work would become much easier. 

It is hopeful and exciting to hear about organizations like this one that is improving the world in such practical, tangible ways. As people's awareness of surplus food increases, it's not implausible to imagine a future in which small farms and local food suppliers once again play an important role in our lives. 

The last word goes to Snow, who says Salvation Farms' name "really honors what we believe in—that farms are our salvation, and that particularly small diversified farms are, and hopefully should be again, the cornerstone centerpieces of healthy and stable communities."