Saving crops and tackling a broken food system: meet the ‘gleaners’

Across Britain, people are gathering to collect unpicked produce. Tackling food poverty and agricultural waste is a timely response to the cost of living crisis – and a challenge to a ‘broken’ food system

Maybe it’s the fresh beets in her salads, or maybe it’s the stress-busting microbiome in the soil under her fingernails — either way, Holly Whitelaw is buzzing with positive energy.

Over the past six months, Whitelaw – coordinator of the Cornwall Gleaning Network – has helped rescue 100 tonnes of surplus, discarded and wonky vegetables from fields and farms.

Food that would otherwise be destined for garbage disposal or left to rot in the ground has been donated to food banks, soup kitchens, shelters and community pantries. And with the lure of gleaning stretching far beyond Cornwall, leftovers – in the freshest sense of the word – are landing on plates across the country.

“Gleaning is rewarding,” says Whitelaw. “People are getting the freshest vegetables straight from the fields – fresher than anything you can get in a supermarket and with no plastic bag in sight.”

The practice has seen an explosion of interest in recent years, and there are now 25 gleaning groups across England, from Penzance to Newcastle upon Tyne, up from just five in 2017. That may not be a Chance that this renaissance has coincided with an unprecedented rise in the cost of living, with one in 10 Britons now struggling to afford to eat, according to food waste charity FareShare.

This type of grassroots, community-driven social welfare is nothing new. Gathering crop scraps as a means of feeding the poor has a long history dating back to biblical times.

Glean

“People get the freshest vegetables straight from the fields,” says Whitelaw. Image: James Banister

The practice is more than a passing mention in the Old Testament where gleaning is described as a God-mandated charitable enterprise, with landowners summoned to leave their fields “for the orphan and for the widow”.

In 18th century England, the poor had the legal right to glean unharvested produce and were called to the land by the tolling of church bells.

Gleaning’s rise to popularity is partly due to Cambridge historian and activist Tristram Stuart, who co-founded the Gleaning Network in 2011, before becoming part of his food waste charity Feedback Global.

Its supporters believe the activity will soon be as common as beach cleanups or charity walks. Instead of church bells, the gleaners’ call to action is the alarm triggered by a broken food system, amplified by the spiraling cost of living.

Glean

Volunteer gleaners take a break from a busy morning harvesting leftovers. Image: James Banister

Whitelaw – whose background is in regenerative agriculture – was driven to create her own gleaning network after filmmaker Simon Reeve brought Cornwall’s hidden deprivation to light in his 2020 documentary series exploring the county.

She now manages a team of eight coordinators, some of whom are paid part-time through grants from the charity Feeding Britain.

“It’s a team of mostly women growing food,” says Whitelaw. “A fantastic group. They’re tough guys – they can push that wheelbarrow up that hill over and over – but they’re also great communicators, they know how to talk to farmers.

Gleaners

The gleaners are “tough guys”, mostly women, but also children. Image: James Banister

Forging lasting alliances with farmers is key to successful projects – and to ensuring a variety of products. Since its establishment last year, the Cornish network has gleaned cabbage, courgettes, beets, broccoli, squash and potatoes from around twenty farmers.

“We are happy to help where we can, especially when people are struggling. It’s the least we can do,” says Tom Simmons of Riviera Produce, one of Whitelaw’s regulars and a major supermarket supplier.

But, despite the goodwill of some, Whitelaw admits that building those relationships hasn’t always been easy. “I was ignored and big organizations told me ‘no’ outright. A farmer told me that if people couldn’t afford to buy food, they should find a job with him.

It’s a really happy atmosphere – every time I go to glean I get lifted

A typical gleaning day starts early. Volunteers – up to 20 at a time – chat as they work in pairs, bending down to slice crucifers from the ground.

“It’s a really happy atmosphere – every time I go gleaning I get lifted up,” Whitelaw says, noting his social aspect and sense of camaraderie. “For volunteers, it’s so good for the mental health, to get out there and do something practical that’s good for the planet.”

In more prosaic times, gleaning means collecting the “oversized”—potatoes too big for crispy packets or blemished cauliflower—in the packing sheds.

food system

A Cornwall Gleaning Network volunteer picks up cauliflower in a field. Image: James Banister

Coordinator Teresa Thorne liaises with farmers, food banks and community kitchens to distribute produce, sometimes sending 300 cases a week, along with recipe ideas.

“The kitchens we work with think it’s great,” she says. “They can cook healthy food from scratch using the freshest produce. It goes from field to plate in a day, and often to people with very limited diets. We provide the best vitamins and minerals they get during their week.

Mother-of-four Holly Davies receives produce gleaned from the Penzance Food Bank and says: ‘The quality is amazing and the kids love it.’

Meanwhile, the Camborne, Pool and Redruth Food Bank – one of the largest in Cornwall – was delivering 750 meals an hour in the summer of 2019. Demand has been rising again since the cancellation of the Universal Credit increase by £20, combined with pumped up power and fuel. prices.

food system

Supermarkets reject many products purely for aesthetic reasons. Image: Eric Prouzet

“The fruits and vegetables we buy from the supermarkets – the yellow stickers – are out of breath, so they don’t last long,” says Joyce Duffin, director of operations. “The gleaning project has made a huge difference – we get so much out of them.”

In fact, they could get even more. Whitelaw estimates that 20,000 tonnes of gleanable food a year is wasted in Cornwall alone. UK-wide, up to 1.6million tonnes of food worth around £500million is wasted at farm level.

Farms will protect themselves against too late or too early ripening of produce by planting more than their supermarket contracts require. They could grow two fields of cauliflower, for example, knowing that half are doomed to strict supermarket cosmetic requirements.

And sometimes labor shortages or razor-thin margins on tough farm gate prices mean a crop is just too expensive to harvest. Instead, it is returned to the field.

food system

Up to 1.6 million tonnes of food is wasted at farm level in the UK. Image: James Banister

While gleaning has benefits as a short-term balm in times of crisis, this reliance on overproduction — and volunteers — is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in our food systems, says Feedback Global.

“Gleaning is not a solution to food insecurity,” says Phil Holtam of Feedback, who oversees the Gleaning Network’s business in Sussex. “You cannot fight poverty and its underlying causes with excess food.

“Gleaning is much more of a conversation about systemic overproduction of food and a system that requires a high level of abundance, allowing quite a large margin to be wasted.

“Farmers see gleaning as a last resort – which is good. There have been a few occasions where we have had pencil gleanings and the grower has come up with a solution to sell his crop. This is always the best result.

It’s actually within the ability of one of our large supermarkets to fund a national gleaning network

For now, Whitelaw and his crew are happy to be that last resort. She budgets the cost of gleaning Cornwall’s annual 20,000 tonne food surplus at around £45,000, and says that in the long run supermarkets should foot the bill, rather than relying on volunteers to do their dirty gig.

“I’m thinking big, but if we were to expand that, it’s actually within the ability of one of our large supermarkets to fund a national gleaning network,” she says.

“There’s a lot of inertia, isn’t there? Lots of talking shop. I get that people don’t want to make bad decisions about investments and the future of our planet, but it’s like – hurry up. We have the answers. Let’s go.

Main Image: James Banister

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About Marco C. Nichols

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