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Nonprofit uses ancient custom of ‘gleaning’ to provide fresh produce for the hungry

Volunteers show off some of the produce they harvested from a local farm.
photo/submitted

By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer

Most of us don’t think about what happens to surplus crops that are unharvested, but a Massachusetts nonprofit organization has made it its mission to ensure they are not wasted. Boston Area Gleaners, founded in 2004, coordinates with local farms to harvest and distribute crops that would otherwise go unused.

According to the organization’s website, “gleaning” is the act of collecting surplus crops from farmers’ fields. In ancient times, landowners invited peasants onto their fields after the main harvest to take what was left over. Gleaning was a method of improving food security for the poor.

“A large amount of food is wasted,” explained Education and Outreach Coordinator Jack Leng. “An average of 20 percent goes to waste on farms alone.”

He noted that farmers have excess produce for various reasons, such as bumper crops, impending weather events, lack of staff or time to harvest, or imperfections that make produce unmarketable.

“What is not harvested is eventually broken down and turned into soil so it’s really not wasted,” Leng said, “but farmers want to see their crops eaten. They’ve put time and energy into growing it, so our relationship with farmers is mutually beneficial.”

Boston Area Gleaners was founded by Oakes Plimpton, who was retired from Waltham Fields Community Farm.

“He worked out of a minivan,” Leng noted, adding that the organization grew exponentially through word of mouth and outreach. It was incorporated in 2007.

By the end of 2017, Boston Area Gleaners volunteers harvested more than 600,000 pounds of crops from over 50 farms in eastern Massachusetts. Leng noted that it is the only organization that harvests food directly from farms in Massachusetts for distribution to hunger relief organizations, such as Boston-area food banks, pantries, meal programs and low-income markets.

“We work with 25 smaller relief agencies and three big distributors who work with hundreds of other smaller organizations,” Leng said.

Since it began, Boston Area Gleaners has gleaned over 1.8 million pounds of fresh local produce for the benefit of people in need. By 2019, they hope to collect one million pounds of crops every year.

Leng said by next year they hope to be able to track the food from the farm all the way to the individuals who receive it so they know exactly where the crops are going.

Like most nonprofit groups, Boston Area Gleaners depends on volunteers.

“We are only as strong as our volunteer force,” Leng admitted. “It’s not easy work; it’s intense labor. But we have a diehard following.”

Volunteers can “get outside, embrace a traditional work ethic, and meet people who believe in a common cause,” according to Leng.

The group has hundreds of volunteers, but there’s always need for more – to harvest, transport, pack and deliver the crops.

In addition to individual volunteers, Boston Area Gleaners enlists groups from corporations, educational institutions and faith-based congregations.

The organization’s ultimate goal, according to Leng, is to “leave no crop behind.”

To become involved or to donate, visit bostonareagleaners.org or call 781-894-3212.

 

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