Rescuing California’s Wasted Produce

Photo courtesy of Christy Porter at Hidden Harvest, Inc.
Photo courtesy of Christy Porter at Hidden Harvest, Inc.

Every year millions of tons of edible produce never make it to market. Much of it is plowed under in the fields. One solution to the immense waste problem: Gleaning, whereby local community organizations rescue crops that would otherwise be buried under the plow blade.

Conrad Kootz is standing in a small inlet of crushed corn stalks, surrounded by a bright green field that grows well above his head. In the clear of the thicket, he grabs an ear of corn from an intact stalk. Holding the corn with his left hand, he quickly whacks it off the stalk with a small machete and tosses it into a nearby bucket. But Kootz is not part of the team harvesting food to sell in the average grocery store.

He and a group of six other volunteers are gleaners from Food Share, Inc., a Ventura County food bank. Over the next two hours, they will harvest more than 800 pounds of sweet corn from a field waiting to be “disked” or plowed under.

These “gleaners” stand on one small square of the vast carpet of Ventura County cropland. Every year, 100,000 acres of strawberries, celery, lemons, avocados and other crops are grown here. However, some of this food will never leave the fields.

There is a portion of California’s bounty – for some crops, estimated at as high as 25 percent – that is never harvested, or is lost before it ever reaches stores. Yet one fourth of the families in the area are in need of food assistance, and 23 percent of children live in homes that are food insecure or hungry, according to Food Share. Ironically, the beneficiaries of Food Share’s volunteer efforts are often the farm workers themselves, many of whom cannot afford to buy the very produce they harvest.

How can it be that in a state that produces enough food to feed one third of our country, one in four families in Ventura County, do not get enough to eat?

The Gleaners from Hunger In California on Vimeo.

Christy Porter, the founder of Hidden Harvest, a nonprofit group in the Coachella Valley that focuses on “rescuing” leftover produce from the fields, says that hunger is certainly not due to a lack of food.

“We had 140,000 pounds of carrots left above the ground,” said Porter of the produce that couldn’t be sold on the conventional market in 2008. “We were able to harvest about 14,000 pounds, but we couldn’t go fast enough to [get the product before it spoiled].”

This is one example of the food that is wasted in a state that grows so much. Porter said she has seen everything from 100 percent of a crop left behind to only 5 percent leftover. However, even that 5 percent is something that could alleviate hunger, say gleaning organizations.

In most cases, the amount harvested from a field is less than what is actually available to eat.

“There will always be surpluses in agriculture unless there is some kind of disaster.” said Ventura County farmer Link Levens. “Then, the farmer with the commodity will make all the money.”

Produce growers must ensure they will have enough of a product to meet their clients’ demand. If the grower comes up short, they risk losing a client to the competition. As a result, there is always more than enough food grown in the fields, said Levens.

When there are gleaning groups in these agriculturally rich areas, this surplus – ripe for the picking – can end up as more than mulch.

“I like gleaning,” said Kootz, as he dumped a bucket of corn into a rapidly filling bin on the back of a Food Share pickup truck. “It’s a reason to get out of bed in the morning; plus there’s a reward – you can help people.”

This group gleans five days a week for two hours a day, contributing tens of thousands of pounds of fresh produce yearly to Food Share’s pantry. Like the founders of Food Share, these volunteers share a common goal with gleaning groups all over the state – to harvest leftover produce from the fields before it gets disked or rots on the ground.

In recent years, gleaning has provided an alternative source of fresh produce for food banks and led to the distribution of millions of pounds of fruits and vegetables.

In the Coachella Valley alone, Hidden Harvest recovered more than 500,000 pounds of produce in 2008. However, that number represents only a fraction of the amount of produce that goes unpicked.

“It’s an incredible waste,” said Sandra Carroll, the assistant director of Hidden Harvest. “We have hungry people… and we understand why the [leftover produce] is there – just let us go and get it.”

Issues of timing, convenience, and the lack of incentive, say growers, prevent them from participating fully in gleaning and food recovery programs.

“They think it’s a big deal to let us in the fields,” said Carroll. “But it’s not, and most of the time, farmers don’t realize how easy it is.”

Gleaning is all about relationships, said Porter. Organizers at Food Share agree.

The farmers who work with food recovery groups must trust the organizations to mind food safety rules and liability concerns. Though professional gleaners carry insurance and have safety protocols, farmers must also be invested in the purpose of gleaning to communicate when leftover crops are ready to be harvested.

Farmers are not the only obstacles to gleaning. Even the most successful gleaning programs only get a small fraction of the food left behind in the fields.

Perishable produce has to be held in cold storage and distributed quickly; transportation is costly; and volunteer organizations simply don’t have enough people to pick all of the available produce food.

Even if there were considerably more gleaners, it would barely make a dent in the leftover produce, say some gleaning groups. Current models of gleaning have not come up with the most efficient way to eliminate field surplus. Additionally, farmers say they cannot allow workers to take all of the leftover produce, as this “second harvest” would potentially compete on the street for the market of that product.

“As a farm worker you are trained to look for the right produce,” said Arcenio Lopez, a former strawberry picker.

According to gleaners, many retailers look for “grade A” product. As a result, growers leave the slightly smaller ears of corn or misshapen white sweet potatoes in the field.

Additionally, farmers say they harvest the amount needed to fill an order. If the food leftover in the field cannot be sold, there is no reason to pick it, as the cost of the harvest would be a financial loss. This perfectly edible food goes to waste, unless local gleaners can ‘rescue’ the leftover harvest for the hungry.

“It’s difficult to be a farm worker,” said Lopez. “We don’t make a lot of money … and we can’t take food home.”

Lopez now works as an organizer for the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, or MICOP, which provides information and services to the Ventura County population of indigenous immigrants from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

At a recent MICOP meeting, members bagged canned, dried, and fresh produce purchased with grants and donated by Food Share. These bags of food, probably enough to last about a week for a family of four, were being assembled to be given away to any indigenous people who showed up to the meeting, most of whom are farm workers in the area.

“This is good, but it’s not enough,” said Lopez “These people are really struggling with poverty.”

Approximately 250 families attend the monthly meetings. Many families are also on some kind of assistance, such as welfare or food stamps, and say the food donations at the meetings are very helpful.

Back out in the fields, it is impossible to tell that anyone is lacking food, as the Food Share volunteers fill their buckets with gleaned corn.http://www.scpr.org/admin/news/story/add/

Despite the large haul, it is clear that there are hundreds of pounds of edible produce that will return to the ground in preparation for the new crop.

“We do a lot, but there is much more that we could do,” said Meg Horton, Food Share’s volunteer coordinator. “We have many wonderful volunteers, but we could use more gleaners.”

This story is part of a collaboration between KPCC.org and Hunger in the Golden State, a multimedia project from the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and California Watch, an initiative of the Center for Investigative Reporting.