Gleaning offers a solution to food waste and world hunger
A network of volunteers in Flanders and across Europe collects leftover crops from fields and donates them to charities, ensuring most edible foods end up on our plates and not in the bin
Labour of love
Something needs to be done urgently, say the volunteers of the Gleaning Network EU, who spend their free time collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields and offering them to charitable organisations.
The concept is simple, explains Helena Schalenbourg, a volunteer for the network’s local chapter. “On average, as much as 33% of the harvest is wasted in the first phase of the production process, either because the vegetables don’t meet the absurd aesthetic standards from the supermarkets, or because of unfair commercial practices.”
Wholesalers, she continues, also often cancel their orders at the last minute, leaving farmers with crops that can’t be sold anywhere else. “Gleaning might be a possible, small-scale solution.”
Working with the farmers, the volunteers go to the fields, collect the vegetables and redistribute them to social organisations like food aid networks. “At the same time, gleaning is a way to raise awareness about the issue of food waste,” Schalenbourg says.
That’s necessary because wasting perfectly edible food for aesthetic standards is morally unacceptable, she says. “But it is an environmental disaster as well. Every vegetable that ends up in the bin is a waste of resources like water, fertilisers, land and, of course, the farmer’s labour.”
Farmers put a lot of resources and love into their work, so it hurts to see the fruits of their labour go to waste
The participating farmers are very enthusiastic about the gleaning initiative. For Schalenbourg, this doesn’t come as a surprise. “Farmers put a lot of resources and love into their work, so it hurts them to see the fruits of their labour go to waste,” she says. “They are really happy with our effort to put these commercially unwanted vegetables to use, especially because we redistribute everything to charities and social entrepreneurs.”
Gleaning Network Belgium is part of the European network, which is headquartered in the UK. The first gleaning event in Flanders took place in 2014, on the occasion of the Feeding the 5000 event, run by the Feedback organisation to provide 5,000 people with a meal, using only food that didn’t make it to the supermarkets or was thrown away. Feedback is the brainchild of British environmental activist Tristram Stuart and has inspired similar movements all over Europe.
During last year’s harvest season, Gleaning Network Belgium went out to the fields almost every weekend for three consecutive months. “It was intense, but very valuable,” says Schalenbourg. As the summer draws to an end, new volunteers are enthusiastic, but sometimes also surprised.
“We are all raised with the idea of finishing everything on our plate out of respect,” says Schalenbourg. “Many participants are shocked when they see for themselves how much food goes to waste. I was too, the first time.”
Apart from raising awareness and collecting the leftover crops, Schalenbourg adds, gleaning is also an activity that connects volunteers with each other, but also with the land and the farmers. “People often don’t have a clue where their food comes from or what certain vegetables look like in reality,” she says. “So for all its simplicity, gleaning is actually more than meets the eye.”
Photo courtesy Gleaning Network Belgium