Reducing Food Waste and Nourishing Communities: The Power of Gleaning Projects

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glean definitionboxes of blueberriesThe EPA estimates that one-third of food produced in the US is wasted, and food waste makes up 24% of landfilled material. With over 45,000 farms in NC (NC Ag Statistics Highlights, USDA National Ag Stats Service), the practice of gleaning can help divert food waste on farms while also helping food insecure individuals have access to fresh, local produce. Gleaning projects are also great ways to work collaboratively among program areas in county offices, with campus faculty, and with community partners. “People often think of gleaning as an activity to feed households experiencing food insecurity, but it also benefits local and regional food and nutrition security overall, promotes community engagement, and helps people make connections with the people who grow and harvest our food as well as learning about farming practices, the food system and production, and food waste,” (Center for Ag & Food Systems, National Gleaning Project). Below are three examples of successful gleaning projects in North Carolina.

pender county

Agent: Amy Mead

Crop: Blueberries

Partners: NCCE staff from Brunswick, Pender, New Hanover, and Bladen Counties; 104 volunteers from Extension Master Gardeners, Extension Master Food Volunteers, 4-H members, FFA members, UNCW Environmental Services Department, and community members; NCSU Castle Hayne Horticulture Crops Research Station; Food Bank of Central & Eastern NC, Good Shepherd Center, and Iglesias Visionpender collage gleanHow did the initial project start: NCCE staff visited the NCSU Castle Hayne Horticultural Crops Research Station in New Hanover County where they learned that after initial harvest for research purposes, the fruit went to waste in the fields as it cannot be sold. With the knowledge of food waste and food insecurity, the team went to work looking for a way to get the berries to people in need.pender gleanThe Gleaning Impact: In 2022, staff and volunteers gathered twice at the research station to pick blueberries. In addition to gaining knowledge about blueberry varieties, research conducted at the research station, food access, and healthy eating, volunteers gleaned 770 pounds of blueberries that were donated to the Food Bank of Central  & Eastern NC in Wilmington to be distributed to food insecure individuals. After the success in the first year, the group hosted a gleaning event again in 2023 where they harvested 450 pounds of blueberries and distributed them to the Good Shepherd Center of Wilmington and Iglesias Vision, a Spanish language faith-based organization/church.donation totalAdvice for other counties who may be interested in hosting their own gleaning event: 

“You’ll want to start by identifying the crops you’ll glean. This may mean partnering with an Ag Research Station or creating a relationship with a farmer. Determine where the food will be going once you’ve identified what you’ll be gleaning. Our Food Bank is very large and will take whatever donation we bring, but you’ll want to confirm when you can drop off, how much they’ll take, and how they want it boxed/packaged.

Start small with one gleaning date to work out the logistics of your event. I use Eventbrite to have volunteers sign up for the event. It’s a good way to communicate with volunteers and an easy way to report numbers. It is a popular event because it is a good cause and volunteers like that we allow them to take blueberries home after we have collected for the donation. We usually get about 50 volunteers per gleaning. 

I’d also say be sure to invite all of your Extension colleagues and put them to work assisting with volunteer management at the event. It’s a wonderful day to work outside with your coworkers and this event truly spans all program areas.” 

Amy Mead, Natural Resources and Environmental Education Area Agent, Brunswick, New Hanover, and Pender County Centerspender group glean

Henderson county titleAgent: Hannah Peeler

Crop: Apples & Potatoes

Partners: Henderson County NCCE Staff, Mountain Horticulture Crops & Research Extension Center, North River Farms, Blue Ridge Community College, Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard, Henderson County Soil and Water, Tri-Hishtil, Henderson County Public Schools, Society of St. Andrews, Pryor Family Apple Farm, 4-H membersapple gleaning

How did the initial project start: 

Henderson County grows 85% of the apples in NC with sales over $31 million. Although agriculture is a large part of Henderson County, teachers expressed that many of the school-aged youth did not understand farm operations or have never been on a farm. NCCE staff collaborated with the Mountain Horticulture Crops & Research Extension Center, North River Farms, Blue Ridge Community College, Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard, Soil & Water, Tri-Hishtil, and Henderson County Public Schools to provide agriculture tours and gleaning opportunities for middle school students. The goal was to connect youth directly to a crop they would see at the grocery store, from beginning to end. They worked with the Society of St Andrew to teach the youth about gleaning and food insecurity and then distributed the gleaned produce. After a few years of school tours, North River Farms and the Society of St Andrew asked if a 4-H Club would be interested in planting potatoes as a community service project which then grew into a Hands to Service community service project for all Henderson County 4-H’ers and Clubs. Several hundred pounds of potatoes were planted in Spring 2022 and participants returned in Fall 2022 for the gleaning event.collage of gleaning project The apple gleaning project began as a 4-H County Council initiative, as part of the requirement is to work together to create a community service opportunity for the county to do collectively. 4-H members had a connection with a 4-H family that grows apples locally and arranged the gleaning event.

The Gleaning Impact: 

Over 2000 pounds of potatoes were gleaned and distributed to food insecure individuals by the Society of St. Andrews. Just over 75 bushels of apples were picked and distributed the same day to citizens of Charlotte who have little access to fresh produce.donation graphicAdvice for other counties who may be interested in hosting their own gleaning event: 

“I will preface by saying Henderson County is very blessed to have the community we do. The generosity and willingness of our local producers to partner with 4-H and/or Extension is amazing. And, we have pretty amazing 4-H families. Do not be intimidated to ask about farmers’ interest in these types of endeavors and be prepared to answer questions and have a plan in place before asking. The plan you have may change, and that is okay! But sometimes coming up with a feasible solution and action plan, gets the gears going a lot quicker. Relying on your 4-H parents or teens can also be that connection too. I would also suggest reaching out to your local Society of St. Andrew because they have their own volunteer base and connections with food banks.”

Hannah Peeler, 4-H Youth Development Agent, Henderson County Centergroup glean

harnett county

You can find more information at the NC Gleaning publication.

Written By

Morgan Marshall, N.C. Cooperative ExtensionMorgan MarshallExtension Master Food Volunteer Program Manager & Local Food Communications Asst Call Morgan Email Morgan Agricultural & Human Sciences
NC State Extension, NC State University
Updated on Nov 6, 2023
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