Americans waste nearly half a billion pounds of food every day. When we waste food, we throw away money, too–as much as $160 billion annually.


Waste is pervasive and occurs at every level of our ever-protracted food supply chain. It begins at the source with crops left to be retilled into the fields and concludes with yellowing lettuce in our refrigerators. 

We are all familiar with the latter, even the most diligent of shoppers, but few have any context to understand the former. Volunteering as a field gleaner is perhaps the best way to gain context and insight into our food production system.  It promises to revolutionize the way you think about all things food, there is no way it could not. 

With some good fortune, I participated in two gleaning efforts in 2010.  Both events were coordinated by Jeffrey Wankel of Bread for the City, a D.C. non-profit that provides vulnerable residents with social services, including a food pantry with fresh produce.

Inspiring healthy eating habits 

Three years ago the directors committed to improve their food pantry services and focus on nutrition and healthy eating. It no longer sufficed to simply feed their clients, they wanted to nourish them. They set out to inspire healthy new habits and lead by example. 

They started by hiring an expert. Nutrition consultant Sharon Gruber was brought on and tasked with applying healthy, yet affordable, purchasing modifications.  These changes included: no more boxed mac’n’cheese, no red meat and exclusively low-sodium canned goods. The next step was obvious–fresh produce.  After researching wholesale prices and doing the math, Gruber concluded wholesale produce would not fit into the food budget. She had to “get creative,” so she created a new program, Glean for the City, in the spring of 2008.

In its first summer, the Glean for the City team visited northern Virginia farms three times a week. In its second year, gleaning efforts began at local D.C. farmers markets.  To date, the program has recovered and distributed over 100,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables.  

It is a testament to the successful relationships and network Glean for the City has established in a relatively short period of time, but it is also a reminder of the deplorable amount of waste occurring on our farms. 

The reasons for food waste are plentiful, but pivot on two modern realities: inflated consumer standards (exactly when did we decide our apples had to be perfectly round and our potatoes eyeless?), volatile pricing due to the power resting almost exclusively with grocery stores and never farmers.

Coordinator’s role is crucial 

Glean for the City opportunistically acts as a middleman, connecting supply and demand–not currently guaranteed by the market. In giving life to a relationship that did not exist prior, Glean for the City’s founders have relied on intuition and trial and error in guiding the program through its infancy. 

Much of the program’s initial success can be attributed to securing sponsorship for the Gleaning coordinator’s role. The position is occupied by a full-time Americorps member with the federal government providing the salary. As Gruber stated: “having a consistent gleaning coordinator who is at the farm each time and knows the drill [is] critical to the farmers buying in.” With a full-time volunteer, the remaining costs were minimal and absorbed by the standing food budget. In its second year, Glean for the City secured private grant money to purchase an additional truck and materials such as bins and gloves.  

Glean for the City appears to be fairly unique in its overall structure–one Gleaning Coordinator managing a rotating group of volunteers, corporate attorneys and  schoolchildren alike, but it is far from unique in its purpose or mission. 

Private and publically supported, gleaning programs are sprouting up across the country and include some interesting urban initiatives as well. The practice is experiencing a resurgence from its medieval days and is once again touted as an effective tool in the fight against hunger and malnutrition.  

The purpose remains unchanged, but the modern version is expectedly more institutionalized with non-profits, municipal bodies and statewide charities gleaning on behalf of the vulnerable individuals.

Legal protections reduce donor risk

Gleaning efforts now takes place in warehouses, grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias and even homes across the country. Wherever waste occurs, food ‘recovery’ or ‘recycling’ is possible. Donors need only to have an excess supply.

Legal protections and financial incentives guaranteed by the federal government ensure a working food recovery program, in part by minimizing the risk to farmers or others in the food chain who would like to donate.

Donors must also act in “good faith” to be shielded from liability, in the event that gleaned food causes a problem. (We could not find an instance of this, but one can imagine the possibility for contamination when recovering food.)

Donors and distributors are guaranteed liberal and far-reaching protections pursuant to The Bill Emersen Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, signed into law in 1996.  Liabilities, civil or criminal, may only arise in the face of “gross negligence,” “intentional misconduct” or a deliberate “act of omission.” 

“Food” is defined as “any raw, cooked, processed, or prepared edible substance, ice, beverage, or ingredient used or intended for use in whole or in part for human consumption.”  The comprehensive definition of “food” assuredly protects cafes and restaurants and thus such entities should face comparable expectations to farmers and grocers.  

Prior to 1996, donors and distributors were subject to 50 unique state laws, which made it a difficult-to-navigate system. In 1995, 83 percent of potential food donors cited liability issues as the primary barrier to donate.  The 1996 law intended to put parties at ease and incentivize additional food donations. 

Donors also benefit from federal tax write-offs, not paying taxes on donated food items. Bread for the City’s Wankel says this is never a principal reason for the farmers’ participation, but every bit helps. The same financial incentives stand for individuals donors as well. 

This is critical time in which an increasing number of Americans are relying on hunger relief services for their access to food. Feeding America estimates that 1 in 6 Americans depended on local food pantry services to “get by” in 2010. At the same time, we are wasting food at an alarming rate, by the millions of pounds every day. 

Given these dual realities, gleaning programs are only bound to proliferate.