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Volunteers At Wash. Farms Gleaning The Fall Harvest To Fight Hunger, Food Waste

Gleaning is an ancient word for a practice that dates back to Biblical times. Farmers allowed peasants to take leftover crops after the harvest was over. The practice has been making a comeback in recent years as a way to fight hunger locally and cut back on food waste. 

At Clean Greens Farm in Duvall, Washington, a field of kale is overflowing. It's been picked before, but it just keeps on coming, says farm manager Tommie Willis, as he leads a group of volunteers to one patch and shows them how to glean. 

Some of the plants don’t look great. They’re organically grown without chemical pesticides.

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

“You notice the very bottom leaves? They’ve got brown spots on'em? When you come across those, just drop'em and there’ll be plenty of good stuff to harvest,” Willis says as he demonstrates and drops the good leaves into harvest baskets.

Willis says he’d hate to see that go to waste. So, for the past two years, Clean Greens has invited gleaners to come in regularly.

“There’s times I don't know what I would do without them, because we grow a lot more than our markets can use. And so it's good to have an outlet for that,” Willis says.  

A local network of Hopelink food banks will distribute the extra produce. 

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU
Squash that won't be sold is available for gleaning at Clean Greens Farm in Duvall, Washington.

Marlene Lambert is the gleaning coordinator for Sno-Valley harvest, which works with about 15 local farms to bring fresh, healthy food to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it.       

“You know a lot of the farms that I partner with, they sell at farmers markets. So it’s really great when we get to bring that food into the food bank,” Lambert says.

She says they’ve brought in nearly 20,000 pounds of produce this season so far. In addition to kale, this farm alone has provided broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, pumpkins and several kinds of squash. And that’s all food that probably would have otherwise been composted on site. 

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

“There’s a tremendous amount of food waste that exists in our country right now," says David Bobanick, executive director of Rotary First Harvest in Seattle. "Forty percent of the produce that's grown in the U.S. in some way goes to waste."     

Over the past five years, Bobanick says Rotary First Harvest has been reaching out to the state’s 39,000 small growers to develop gleaning programs. He says most farmers don’t want good food to go to waste, but they don’t have time to figure out how to donate a perishable crop like kale.

“It’s really challenging to manage something like this. You only have a one- or two-day window to distribute it. And so, gleaning is really the only way to get that kind of incredibly rich, nutritious food into the food banking system," Bobanick says.

Gleaners can mobilize in just a couple of days and get the morning’s crop into the hands of hungry people that same afternoon.

More than a dozen gleaning groups are currently active in western Washington.

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