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How to glean for good

Sometimes a ripe piece of hanging fruit just needs to find a hungry home.

Gleaning for good by harvesting unwanted produce from local farms, community gardens, or neighbors' backyards and distributing this excess bounty to the food insecure is an increasingly popular — and necessary — humanitarian effort for the hungry during tough financial times, as Shareable recently reported.

Across the country, volunteer pickers join forces to collect literally tons of fruits and vegetables that then find their way to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and food pantries, as well as senior centers, low-income homes, and school lunch programs. "We see this work as a win four ways," says Rick Nahmias, the founder of Food Forward, a Los Angeles-based gleaning group. "Pantries get free produce, volunteers get an immediate sense of being change agents around the fight on hunger, homeowners get a tax deduction for every pound that's harvested, and those in need get free, nutritious, local fruit."


Food Forward in Los Angeles has harvested tons of produce for the poor. Photo credit: Rick Nahmias. Used with permission.

Keen to start gleaning in your area? Find tips below from folks who forage around the nation to feed vulnerable people in their neighborhoods. Above all: Keep it simple, advise seasoned gleaners. "This doesn’t need to be a big, organizational undertaking," explains Natasha Boissier, who started North Berkeley Harvest. Nahmias agrees: "This is centuries' old work and should not be made complicated. Our formula: Local fruit + local volunteers = 100 percent to the hungry."

The people behind the Marin Organic School Lunch and Gleaning Program have sponsored a National Gleaning Day for the past two years, and another is likely this September. For more details, visit their site, which includes a gleaning toolkit.

Here's how to start your own effort:

Identify outlets: Approach local aid organizations that could likely use the fresh food and find out in advance what and how much they can accept (Sometimes more isn’t better.), notes Boissier. "Have a contact person for your drop-off days, but keep in mind, these organizations are often staffed by low-paid workers or volunteers and there’s high turn over," she observes. "They’re also very busy; so don’t expect a lot of accolades. Just deliver and go, and know in your heart that you’re doing good. I remember one resident at a shelter yelling at me: 'Why are you bringing us fruit? We’re grown men — we need meat!' I thought it was funny."

Nahmias adds: Be sure to check that your donor organization can refrigerate — even better if they can pick up. "It should be seen as a partnership from the beginning," he says, "so the receiving agency sees the value in what you are supplying them."

Make a flyer: When Boissier was caring for her newborn, she spent a lot of time walking in her neighborhood and was struck by the number of abundant fruit trees in the area and how much of their fruit is allowed to drop and rot. "It was a light-bulb moment," she says. "So I went home and wrote up a flyer asking people to contact me if they had excess produce to give away. That’s how North Berkeley Harvest got started."

Adds Melita Love, volunteer and founder of Farm to Pantry: Be inclusive, if your community includes a group of diverse language speakers, as her Sonoma County, California area does, translate a flyer into whatever language is appropriate. In her case, it's Spanish.


A group of gleaners at a farm in Marin County, California. Photo credit: Courtesy Marin Organic. Used with permission.

Recruit volunteers: E-mail friends and family for your first harvest and start small, suggests Boissier. Sara Pine, founder of Friendship Donations Network in New York, recommends reaching out to community groups, local media, and social clubs or service organizations. Nahmias says social media is Food Forward's best recruiting tool: "Our Twitter handle is @foodforwardla, and we get fruity and have fun because we know this work calls out to folks who like to be outside doing good: foodies, tree huggers, and social justice wonks." Have all volunteers sign a liability waiver and host an annual safety/how-to workshop, recommends Love.

Identify good gleaning locations: Start at home, says Anna Chan, also known as The Lemon Lady, and donate your own excess produce. Other volunteers may be good sources for bounty or know where to look or ask, offers Nahmias. Consider farms, community gardens, and backyards, adds Love, who advises gleaners to introduce themselves and get permission before picking.

Gather materials for gleaning: The only equipment needed: an orchard ladder, a long-handled fruit picker — which cost around $30 — clippers and/or knives, and some bags or boxes for the harvest, Boissier explains. Volunteers should come equipped with their own hats, gloves, sturdy shoes or boots, and water bottles, notes Love.

Taste test: Ask permission of property owners to test for readiness. And scout a location first before inviting volunteers to show up, cautions Nahmias. It's a bit of upfront work that pays off with everyone having a better experience and the group gleaning better results. "I only pick fruit that I would eat myself," says Boissier. "I harvest fruit that hasn’t been sprayed or fertilized with any chemicals. It’s perfectly fine if the fruit comes in funny shapes, that’s how it is in nature, but it has to taste good."

Borrow vehicles: Carpool to gleaning spots, if walking or biking aren't options. Ask volunteers with vehicles that have the space to accommodate the harvest to drive to the gleaning site, says Love. Some food pantries who view gleaners as both good samaritans and reliable partners, may be open to adding individuals to their insurance at no cost — clean driving records help here — adds Nahmias.

Engage the greater community: Speak to local service clubs, garden clubs, schools, and community groups to spread the word. "Have fun and get out to food fairs, social justice conferences and city council meetings,” suggests Nahmias.

Help others get started: Share what you learn with novice gleaning groups.


The glean team: Volunteers Dan Alpert and Sarah Pyle with founder Natasha Boissier of North Berkeley Harvest (far right). Photo credit:Sarah Henry. Used with permission.

Gleaning organizations and resources across the US:

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