BIXBY, Okla. — While COVID-19 has hampered farmers this year by forcing many farmers markets and restaurants to close, usually it’s the weather that threatens crops. A practice called “gleaning” helps save crops from going to waste while feeding those in need.
Heavy rain was causing flooding all along the Arkansas River. Before Joe Tierney knew it, water from the nearby creek was creeping forward onto his farm in Bixby, Oklahoma. He had to evacuate, leaving behind fields full of vegetables. All Tierney could do was watch the water get closer and closer, he says.
That’s when he called Katie Plohocky, the executive director of the Health Community Store Initiative, which aims to bring fresh produce to food deserts in Tulsa. Plohocky says she remembers going to Tierney’s farm and seeing the vegetables in jeopardy.
“Just romaine lettuce the size of my torso that was growing and just all of these rows and to know that it was going to be underwater in two days all of that it was going to be ruined, for me was just … wow,” Plohocky says.
She assembled a small group of volunteers through Facebook with one mission in mind: rescue as many cabbages as possible and bring them to those in need before all the leafy goods were underwater.
Time was of the essence, so she says she rented a U-Haul truck to get all the produce. The team ended up bringing back four truckloads of cabbage and lettuce to the group’s mobile grocery store.
The cabbage rescue mission is part of Hands 2 Harvest, a program that aims to reduce food waste by getting volunteers to pick the excess food of the field. Gleaning has been a way to provide food to the needy since biblical times. There are gleaning organizations all over the country.
Gleaning isn’t a practice exclusive to disasters. Shawn Peterson, founder of the Association of Gleaning Organizations, says the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a crisis for them, but there’s a lot more food to pick up.
“There’s so much more produce, because of disruptions in the systems whether it’s the restaurants that were closed that the small-scale farmer can’t sell to now or schools that were closed, that the large-scale farmer can’t sell to,” Peterson says.
Excess food on the farm is common, even during normal times. Plohocky says farmers often recognize there’s extra food in the fields, but getting it off the farm can be difficult.
“The farmers don’t have the manpower or the time to load it up and deliver it somewhere,” Plohocky says. “And so there’s a missing link in between the farm and the pantries or the food banks or the schools or whoever needs that food … So that’s what we were trying to do, is just fill in that gap a little bit.”
For Tierney, he says he’s in the middle of figuring out how much to grow. He previously sold to restaurants and hotels, but he is transitioning to sell directly to the public through a retail store. There’s a learning curve, he says.
“You know, you just have to grow things and see and you figure your markets out,” Tierney says.
Research from Santa Clara University estimates that about a third of crops grown on U.S. farms go unharvested. Greg Baker, a professor at Santa Clara University, says gleaning only helps to an extent since farmers often will only let gleaners into the field after the very last harvest.
“They can’t afford to have someone who is not well trained, come into their field and do something wrong in like, not wash their hands after using the toilet, and then possibly, you know, contaminate an entire field,” Baker says.
While gleaning won’t solve food insecurity, Plohocky says it’s one way to help get fresh food to people who need it. It isn’t the only strategy she uses to combat food waste while keeping people fed. When the Tulsa farmers market closed, she says she was buying produce directly from the farmers. The food went to her program’s COVID-19 grocery relief program.
“It’s just making that connection between, you know, who’s growing the food, and who’s needing the food because there should be no one in the United States that should be food insecure,” Plohocky says.