In truth, gleaning gathers a very small fraction of what is surely billions of pounds of produce, most of which is simply worked back into the soil. It also yields far less than other surplus-food programs, where donations from supermarkets and distribution hubs are measured not by the garbage bag, but the tractor-trailer.
But gleaning is still important, Mr. Peterson said. “What gleaners do really well is work within the spaces missed by more traditional food recovery and hunger programs,” he said.
They can pick a farm’s fragile greens on 24 hours’ notice, set out a free box of tomatoes still warm from the sun at a rural library, or deliver pints of delicate, just-picked raspberries to a nearby food pantry lacking a refrigerator, on the same day it gives out food.
That’s why Harvest Against Hunger, in Seattle, eventually added gleaning to its larger food-rescue programs, said David Bobanick, 54, its executive director. Today, the 38-year-old organization also runs a national gleaning incubator program through AmeriCorps VISTA that aims to create operations that are tailored to meet the specific needs of their region.
This year, that should also mean financial support for farms that donate the food, most of which aren’t able to participate in the Farmers to Families Food Box program, Mr. Bobanick said. His organization is one of several that have recently won funding to broker arrangements between hunger relief organizations and farmers who can’t sell their crops.
This is also a goal of the sales platform Forager, which will use the rest of its ReFED grant to introduce a new tool that will connect gleaning groups to agencies with funds to buy food. Most of the money will go to the farmer, but a portion will also go to the gleaning group to cover the costs of distribution, said Erica Merritt, 29, who is coordinating the effort.
The idea arose when the obvious became clear, she said: “Gleaners are literally in this unique position between the farms that can’t sell their food, and the people that are hungry.”