By Aaron Retherford
Gleaning has been growing in popularity and for good reason. On paper, it seems like a logical way to feed the hungry – take the surplus food from farms and give it to those who need it. It’s better than letting it go to waste, right?
But it’s not that easy, and that’s why groups like the Community Harvest of Central Vermont are important.
CHCV formed a year ago when Allison Levin was inspired to get into gleaning. Levin was raised on an organic vegetable farm, and she lives next to Dog River Farm and saw there was a potential surplus.
Two summers ago, Just Basics, a nonprofit that runs the Montpelier Food Pantry and FEAST, which handles Meals on Wheels and the Montpelier Senior Meals Program, was interested in gleaning and looked for volunteers. Levin decided to volunteer, but there weren’t enough volunteers and the organizational structure wasn’t fully developed in order to handle all the available surplus.
“By the end of the season, I was doing a lot of what was needed to recover what surplus was available and trying to be creative in ways to utilize it. It was clear to me there was potential for much more,” Levin said.
That experience ignited Levin’s passion for gleaning though. Levin did some research and felt it made sense to intern with Salvation Farms, which is a state-wide organization, working to build increased resilience in Vermont’s food system through agricultural surplus management. Salvation Farms has been gleaning for 10 years, working to create the Vermont Gleaning Collective.
Out of Levin’s internship emerged CHCV, and it thrived in its first year. CHCV recovered 28,156 pounds or 84,468 servings of produce, with that produce being donated to 13 recipient sites. Approximately 6,000 people with limited access to healthy fresh local food in the community received the donated produce.
Capstone Community Action’s Barre Food Shelf, Community Kitchen Academy in Barre, Berlin Elementary School, Family Center of Washington County, Barre Housing Authority’s The Galley, Just Basics, Northfield and Roxbury Schools, and the Vermont Foodbank all received donated food from CHCV.
“We’re very excited about what we were able to accomplish. We were hoping to recover 15-20,000 pounds. We certainly surpassed that,” Levin said. “Volunteers were very inspired by all the surplus they were able to recover. We’d report on how many pounds we did, and they were excited about sharing that with their friends and how much they were helping the community.”
Levin has plans to extend the reach of her organization by working with additional farms and recovering more surplus from the farms she already has relationships.
Gleaned food isn’t all just throwaway quality food either. It’s a mix of Grade A quality food where the supply surpasses the market demand, so farmers donate what they can’t sell. Or sometimes the size of something like a head of cabbage might be smaller than what is normally sold. So while the quality of the produce is the same, the food ends up not being sold. Other times, insects or the weather might damage a crop so it’s not saleable, but is still edible and can end up as a donation.
Levin said she plans to expand the program in hopes of recovering more food and serving more people in need. But she also needs to raise a total of $33,000 in order to fund the program. While it’s obvious CHCV is successful in its mission of providing fresh and healthy food, another challenging aspect will be to raise enough money to keep it going each year to make sure it was run efficiently and professionally.
“Anyone can potentially go out and recover something, but they need to know who can actually use it because dumping six boxes of cabbage on the food pantry’s doorstep doesn’t really help them if they can only use three cabbages,” Levin said.
CHCV received support from several funders in its first year such as: Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, New England Grassroots Environment Fund, and Vermont Community Foundation. Levin said she will reach out to regional businesses and foundations, individuals, and past funders to help reach that financial goal.
Levin is also looking for volunteers. Last year, 180 community volunteers harvested, cleaned, delivered produce, and completed administrative tasks throughout the season for a total of 790 donated hours. Without the volunteers, CHCV wouldn’t have been as big a success.
“We’re excited about expanding this year and getting more volunteers involved. Anyone is welcome to get involved, all ages and abilities,” Levin said. “We have lots of different kinds of people volunteering with us and want to give them opportunities to get out in the fields and learn about their food while helping the community.”