Gleaning: Reducing food waste and feeding the hungry

Local farmers markets are home to gleaning initiatives that help community members who need it most.

With farmers market season in full swing, Michigan residents are enjoying an abundance of food grown by local farmers. However, not every resident is fortunate enough to afford or have access to local produce from farmers markets. Poor access to affordable and healthy food can cause health and quality of life issues for many vulnerable populations. So what can be done?  One major way to combat this is “gleaning”. Gleaning generally refers to collecting leftover crops from farm fields or farmers markets and then donating it to local food banks or charity food organizations.

One such organization that participates in gleaning is the Heartside Gleaning Initiative (HGI) in Grand Rapids, Mich. This organization is different from a typical food bank in that it does not restrict the amount of food each patron can receive per week. Furthermore, they emphasize providing food that is as healthy as possible. This organization has distributed over 50,000 servings of fresh fruit and vegetables to the Heartside community of Grand Rapids, a low income neighborhood in the heart of the city. By providing nutritious food, the Heartside Gleaning Initiative works to improve the health of residents, which in turn gives them a better chance of escaping poverty.  

One of the major partners of HGI is the Fulton Street Farmers Market. Vendors at the market have the option to donate their excess crops to HGI at the end of the Saturday market day. There are several advantages to this for the farmers:

  1. They do not have to worry about transporting and disposing the excess food (which can be costly).
  2. The donation is tax deductible
  3. They are giving back to their community. According to the HGI 2015 annual report, the value of donated produce last year was more than $44,000.

Most people are not farmers, so how can the average citizen get involved in gleaning? At many farmers markets across the state, consumers have the option to pay it forward. Consumers can buy crops from a vendor, then at the checkout give the food back to the market to donate. This is an effective way to financially support farmers, while getting food to those who need it.  

In Grand Rapids, Access of West Michigan will be hosing a food drive on October 15 at the Fulton Street Farmers Market. Looking to find similar programs in your region or to start one? Michigan State University Extension has Community Food Systems educators around the state who can help.

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