Illustration of person in lilac coloured shirt howling a punnet of strawberries

Illustration by Michele Perry

Gleaning could be coming to a field near you

How picking leftover produce feeds families, reduces waste—and is a great way to give back

Ripe red raspberries and strawberries. Leafy green kale. Richly hued beets. Nature’s superfoods are grocery list necessities for some, but completely out of reach for others who don’t have the means to pay for fresh produce. In York Region, where farmland still accounts for almost a third of the land area, the age-old practice of gleaning is coming to the rescue.

Immortalized in artwork like Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners (1857), gleaning is the practice of collecting leftover crops after the regular harvest. At York Region Food Network (YRFN), it’s one tool to help bring residents healthy, sustainable food. YRFN has offered gleaning for 15 years and partners with two to four farms annually. Last year, it took 165 people gleaning.

“Gleaning provides access to fresh, healthy, local produce that would otherwise be turned back into fields,” says Marissa Wiltshire, urban agriculture coordinator at YRFN. “This produce gets used by people who may not be able to afford it otherwise.” Some gleaners take food home, while others pick for organizations that serve vulnerable populations—it’s open to anyone.

“A lot of the people who come don’t speak English, but you see the joy on their faces when they’re here.” 

Sue Feddema and her husband, owners of Round the Bend Farm, welcome four busloads of gleaners to their 35-acre property each fall. “They harvest everything from beets to zucchini,” she says. “Hundreds of pounds of food go out and all four buses are usually jam-packed.” Among the haul are storage crops like carrots, potatoes, cabbage, onions and squash. “This food helps sustain what would otherwise be a lacklustre diet,” Feddema says. And it can last for months. Gleaners have told her they’re still eating squash from her farm in April.

Although Round the Bend could plow leftover produce into the fields, Feddema sees gleaning as a way of giving back. “A lot of the people who come don’t speak English, but you see the joy on their faces when they’re here.” And although gleaning programs are a great help to those living on a limited income, YRFN is careful not to divide people by economic status. “We promote this program to more vulnerable populations so that they have access,” Wiltshire says. “But all are welcome.”

At the Georgina Community Food Pantry, gleaning is part of the Nourishing Possibilities program, funded by York Region. “We’re trying to provide people with the most nutritious food we can,” says executive director Catherine Cook. Pantry clients and volunteers glean from local farms and backyards and join the YRFN crew on trips to Round the Bend, and volunteer pickers help stock the shelves of the food pantry with fresh produce. “We distribute it at the food pantry so people get to pick from a variety of foods, just like they would at a grocery store,” Cook says.

In Georgina, where more than 12 percent of the population is low-income, Cook has seen a lot of people benefit from gleaning. One gleaner, for instance, freezes kale to add to her smoothies. “Kale’s quite expensive for people who are on a limited budget, but this way she can afford it,” Cook says. Another gleaner told Cook how thankful she was to be able to pick fresh raspberries, which she hadn’t eaten in years.

Many gleaners return to the fields not to harvest for themselves, but to give back. Feddema recalls one woman who made several trips to Round the Bend Farm and later returned as one of the bus drivers (the food had helped to sustain her as she earned her bus driver’s license); while a man who had gleaned regularly as a client of United Way-supported agency Blue Door Shelterscame back to harvest for other shelter users.

A lot of the produce picked keeps people going during the winter months. For example, the Georgina Community Food Pantry visits Homestead Orchards for apples each fall. Because they can be stored for eight weeks and require no preparation, apples are ideal for people in temporary accommodations, whether they’re staying in a rooming house or on a friend’s couch.

Cook says gleaning offers rewards people don’t get simply by carrying groceries away from a food bank. “When people go out and participate in acquiring their own food, that’s really important,” she says. “They’re gleaning for themselves, but they’re also gleaning for the folks at the food pantry, and it’s a nice way for them to give back.” 

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