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Gleaning to Feed the Hungry in the North Carolina Triangle

Last Published: 06/17/2013
Lindsay Perry

Hello from Raleigh, North Carolina, where I'm serving with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle (IFFS). Inter-Faith Food Shuttle pioneers innovative, transformative solutions designed to end hunger in our community. I'd like to tell you about an exciting solution we've come up with to fight hunger in our community. The Food Shuttle is driven to respond to the crisis in hunger, obesity, and diet-related diseases.

One in 5 children in the North Carolina Triangle (a region in North Carolina anchored by the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill) is hungry. The heartbreaking part is the number jumps to 1 in 4 children under the age of 5 years old. That represents over 100,000 children. Moreover, statistically speaking, the hungriest people in America are the most likely to be overweight.

In recent years the Food Shuttle has sought to offer increasingly more fresh produce to the communities we serve, with an extra push for local produce. Why local? To me, the produce tastes fresher and more flavorful, and the fresher it is the more nutritious. It's also better for the environment. Buying locally, saves food from being transported to distribution centers, processors, and retailers, which usually means your food travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to your plate. Most importantly, local food supports the local economy.

So how do we get local food?

One of the major sources is the local farms surrounding us. For all kinds of reasons, farmers aren't able to sell all of the food they grow. Some farms plant more than they anticipate actually selling, while others donate produce that doesn't meet market standards, for reasons like size or appearance. Therefore, a lot of good food is left in the fields to rot. According to a Feeding America estimate, more than 6 billion pounds of fresh produce goes unharvested or unsold each year. Nothing against compost, but if food is still nutritious, it should feed people before it becomes fertilizer.

We have rich resources and good productivity in the region?s many farms, including the highest number of sweet potato growers in the country. Many of these farmers would prefer that their excess produce be gleaned and used to feed the hungry, and also earn them deductions on their taxes.

Gleaning, what's that? Field Gleaning is the ancient practice of gathering excess crops after the harvest.

During 2011, IFFS has piloted a Field Gleaning program, taking 30 volunteer groups who contributed 600 volunteer hours to area farms to glean their fields. We've also picked up produce direct from producers and worked closely with a partner gleaning organization. During our pilot year, we have gleaned 150,400 pounds of fresh produce from local farms, including salad and cooking greens, corn, beans, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, apples, watermelons, tomatoes, squash, and, last but not least, sweet potatoes. Produce from the program has provided more than 275,000 healthy servings to our hungry neighbors.

Once the food comes back to the Food Shuttle it goes in one of several directions to help feed our hungry neighbors. If necessary the produce will be sorted and packaged in our warehouse by more volunteers. A large portion of the produce is sent out on deliveries to partner agencies, we distribute regularly to more than 200 partnering hunger relief agencies and programs in our seven county service area. We also host free Mobile Farmers Markets to get fresh produce directly into communities with limited access to it. We often schedule gleanings to precede Mobile Farmers Markets, so that we can supply the "markets" with local produce.

Gleaned sweet potatoes.

Our Culinary Job Training Program, which trains people from life-challenged backgrounds to work in the culinary field, will also cook with the gleaned produce. The food the Culinary Job Training Program prepares is sent out hot or blast frozen to partner shelters and soup kitchens.

It appears that we are getting super fresh, healthful produce directly into food insecure communities, almost as if by magic. It's kind of like we are pulling this food out of thin air. (Actually we are pulling it from the ground.) The good news is excess crops are a largely untapped resource that we can use to fill existing community needs. The Food Shuttle?s Field Gleaning program facilitates sustainability by efficiently using the outputs of one process to fulfill the gaping need of hunger in our community. How cool is that?

Field Gleaning also creates new and increased connections between farms and communities most affected by food insecurity. By creating access to diversified inputs of fresh, local produce, IFFS Field Gleaning helps disadvantaged community members to live healthier, more fulfilling lives and to break the cycles of poverty.