By Caity Varian
When I first started at Whitman College, I was anxious about leaving home and nervous about meeting new people. But most of all I was excited for new opportunities, eager to learn and ready to grow. I hoped to learn about myself, what I was passionate about and how I would go about pursuing these newfound passions.
When I arrived in Walla Walla, Washington, the small town where Whitman is located, I was surprised to learn how agriculturally productive the landscape is. Flying over Walla Walla, all I could see for miles and miles were fields of yellow, green and brown. Soon after arriving on campus I learned that these were wheat fields and that local farms and fields surrounded the area.
During my first week, I attended the Student Activities Fair, an event where student clubs and organizations set up booths to inform students about ways to get involved on campus and in the community. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is where I would find my passion for giving and service.
I can still picture my nervous freshman self making my way across the open field, scanning the lines of tables full of enthusiastic “Whitties” holding signs promoting their various clubs and groups. They were blasting music, handing out stickers and flyers, and trying to entice new students to sign up to join their activity, interest or cause. It was overwhelming to say the least!
I passed by all of the fraternities and sororities, the club and intramural sports teams, the Outdoor Program and many other notable groups, unsure of who to talk to or where I belonged. Bombarded with images of new faces and club logos, my eyes gravitated toward a handwritten sign that didn’t seem to belong to a club or a booth that read GLEANING.
A smiling student caught my gaze and asked, “Do you want to learn about gleaning?” This one word, “gleaning” would inspire me to take action to address issues of food security, food waste, and food production.
Food security is a condition related to the supply of food and individuals’ access to it. The USDA defines food security as, “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”
Determining food security comes down to questions of availability, access, stability and utilization. Is there a reliable and consistent source of quality food? Do people have sufficient resources to produce and/or purchase food? Does access to food remain stable and sustained over time? Do people have the knowledge and basic sanitary conditions to choose, prepare, and distribute food in a way that results in good nutrition?
Then there’s the issues of food waste. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, global food waste amounts to $750 billion every year and the United States wastes food at a higher rate than any other country in the world.
Production losses are greatest for fresh produce. About half of all fruits and vegetables grown are wasted in the food production process. At the farm level, food loss falls into two categories: food that is never harvested and food that is lost between harvest and sale.
Why does fresh produce go to waste? There are a variety of reasons. First of all, it is difficult for farmers to grow exactly the amount that will match demand. Additionally, produce may be damaged due to pests, disease, and/or weather and quality standards and aesthetics prevent these damaged or bruised fruits and veggies from being sold. Finally, market prices may be too low to create financial returns or profits from harvesting and selling produce.
This wasted food represents a lost opportunity to provide necessary food and nutrition to those who don’t have access.
Food security is about ensuring that people know where their next meal is coming from, but it is also about closing the gaping holes in our food system. One way to close these gaps is through gleaning. What is gleaning you may ask?
Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. Gleaning can also include the collection of fresh produce from community gardens, supermarkets, farmers’ markets or restaurants that would otherwise be thrown away.
When it comes down to it, gleaning is any form of food rescue and the benefits are significant. Gleaning reduces food waste, rescuing fresh produce that would otherwise be left in the field. Gleaning also provides nutritious foods to low-income populations who are often unable to buy healthy, local foods due to cost or availability. Additionally, gleaning fosters strong local community food systems, engaging farmers, gardeners and community members.
Need another reason to get onboard with gleaning? The act of gleaning reduces the environmental impact of food production by making the most of agricultural inputs.
So let’s go back to that sign that said “GLEANING.” What was that all about?
That sign was held by one passionate student who had an idea to form a group of Whitman students that would go out and glean at nearby farms in Walla Walla. His name was Sam. He was not associated with an established club. He didn’t have any flyers or stickers to give me but he had a passion for gleaning and a passion for giving that would soon inspire hundreds of students, including me.
Within my first weeks at Whitman, I had gone on my first “glean” and later that semester joined Sam in helping to create a gleaning presence on campus. Today, the Whitman Glean Team is an existing group of passionate and motivated students who organize student and community volunteers to go out to local farms to harvest food that would otherwise go to waste. This food is donated to the Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank, which then distributes that food to the four main food pantries around Walla Walla County.
In just the past year, the Whitman Glean Team has collected over 371 donations in Walla Walla and the surrounding area, with over 300 students and community members involved, donating over 60,000 pounds of fresh produce to Blue Mountain Action Council.
Gleaning gets me outside with friends who are also passionate about localizing and diversifying food security. Together we get our hands dirty, while also working to make a difference in our local community!
If you share my passion for food security and sustainable agriculture, consider giving the gift of fresh fruits and vegetables to a family for a year and learn more about gleaning and ways to get involved in your local community.