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Gleaning is 'one tine of a many-pronged fork' to combat food insecurity

Volunteer gleaners for Rachel's Table of Western Massachusetts display their harvest.
Submitted photo
Volunteer gleaners for Rachel's Table display their harvest.

A traditional form of food redistribution dating to biblical times continues in western Massachusetts. Gleaning is the collection of excess foods from farms and gardens to provide to those in need. With household food insecurity on the rise, this resource is increasingly important.

For NEPM's Hunger Awareness Week, we spoke with Cara Michelle Silverberg of Rachel’s Table of Western Massachusetts. She told me that while the organization approaches food insecurity using Jewish cultural instruction, their work is influenced by all cultures.

Cara Michelle Silverberg, Rachel’s Table of Western Massachusetts: We also are always in conversation with other cultural and faith-based communities about how they go about taking care of the vulnerable members of their communities, and how together we can do that in ways that are culturally sensitive and that meet people's cultural needs.

For example, what types of food do people actually want to eat? What types of food remind them of home? What types of food are their bodies actually primed to digest and absorb nutrients from? And how can what we glean, what we rescue, and what we grow, cater to those needs as best as possible?

Carrie Healy, NEPM: What would a typical gleaning session look like?

Five hundred, 600 feet of row in a large field, all the way back to a tree line, with maybe six rows that have already been dug. So you can see that the farmer has already come through and turned up the potatoes. They've done their first harvest. Their machines have pulled up the ones that they're going to market.

You might see gleaners spread out across several hundred feet of rows, picking potatoes, putting them in buckets, putting them in boxes, bringing them over to trucks. And you also would still see those delineations of areas that the farmers have not yet harvested. And so, there's a way in which the process, and the unfolding of a harvest season, is still very evident even while you're in the fields.

There is a central area to weigh the food and to record where it's going. We record poundage, both so that we can report that back to the farmers for their tax purposes, also so that we can record the poundage to have a sense of impact and distribution. And we record where it's going so that we have a geographic sense of where the needs are and also how equitably we're distributing.

In the years since Rachel’s Table of Western Massachusetts has been running a gleaning program, has the geography of where the food is going changed?

Sort of. When Rachel's Table first started its gleaning program in 2007, it was still operating primarily in the Springfield area. For the past 5 to 6 years, it's really been expanding further into Hampshire and Franklin counties.

We're also aware of needs in rural Hilltown communities. Food access is just a different story in rural communities versus urban communities.

So we have been expanding the distribution area more. And also mapping, literally mapping. We partnered with Smith College students in a GIS class each year, and they have done mapping projects for us to help us visually see not only the growth in gleaning, but the distribution spread in gleaning. And that helps us to target where else and how else we need to focus distribution.

Among those farms less affected by the excessive rain and the flooding this year, there were crops that had been left in the fields this year. So why is that food still there?

It's a great question — a few reasons. One reason is that sometimes there's simply more food than farmers can harvest. It may not be cost effective for them to pay farmworkers to go back into the field and harvest a first time or a second time, or they may have higher yields or higher value crops that they just need to get in from the field, and so that becomes a priority.

There is also the conditioning that consumers have around pretty produce. So anything that's small or a little misshapen or has a bruise on it, is not going to get sold at a market for $2.99 a pound. It's still perfectly edible, nutritious, delicious food. But we, as gleaners, can come out to harvest it and distribute it. It's not going to sell at market.

In the face of a changing climate and rising food insecurity, is the future of gleaning in western Massachusetts a viable solution?

I think it's one tine of a many-pronged fork with which we hopefully can all one day be dining on a delectable meal. It's not the solution, but it's one way that surplus food can make it to people who need it.

It’s Hunger Awareness Week on 88.5 NEPM, exploring stories about hunger in our region to better understand this crisis and what’s being done to combat it. Learn more about hunger in western Massachusetts at nepm.org/hunger.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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