By Amanda Kelly
As I sit down to write this story, the holiday season is coming to an end. In my hometown snow is falling outside. I know that for you, however, it is the cusp of spring—asparagus and berries will soon replace winter squash and citrus at the markets. Some of you might already have your eye on summer. It is all the more fitting then that I write to you from one season to another. I've learned over the years that the many issues surrounding food systems and sustainability are as complex as they are interconnected. Traditional boundaries blur the deeper we go into a particular matter and everything seems to have the same root system. Gleaning, it turns out, is no different.
Each year, Americans generate roughly 60 million tons of produce waste and about 40 percent of our farmed product goes uneaten. The environmental consequences of food waste are pressing as we look to minimize the impact of climate change in the future. Landfills are the largest man-made source of methane gas—a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more effective at trapping heat in the earth's atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
A hard truth about the staggering amount of food waste generated by excess food is the 48 million people who go hungry every day. In San Diego County, 473,500 unique individuals are impacted by hunger every year. Gleaning and other efforts to reduce America's edible waste address the dual problem of excess waste and widespread hunger. In the world of food-banking, gleaning is the process of sorting donated produce, while "food rescue" encompasses the broader act of transferring that food from waste to healthy, edible meals.
More than 13,000 volunteers assist in Feeding San Diego's gleaning efforts. Director of Operations, Alicia Saake, indicated that many volunteers come to the warehouse with latent prejudices about imperfect produce and leave with a greater awareness of the complexities of the food system. She explained that first-time volunteers often struggle to differentiate between what is inedible produce and what is simply imperfect or "ugly"—carrots that look like fingered citron or conjoined apples, etc.
"We work with volunteers to glean, to make sure the product is safe and then get it back out to the community," Saake explains.
Less than one percent of the food Feeding San Diego receives and distributes is purchased or new. That means the rest is donated and/or comes from distribution centers and manufacturing sites that have products they cannot sell as the "sell by" or "use by" date is nearing. "Dates on food are not federally regulated," says Saake. "So there is inconsistency; namely, a lot of this food is perfectly edible."
Most of the produce Feeding San Diego receives is Grade A for its appearance and size. Ultimately though, differently shaped, sized or colored produce has no effect on the nutritional value of the food. "We're very conditioned by what we see at the grocery store," Saake says. "This perfect same-sized produce isn't very realistic to what's actually growing."
Feeding San Diego partners with local farms and with the California Association of Food Banks and its Farm to Family program. These broader partnerships ensure that millions of pounds of gleaned produce makes it to local families. "We put a lot of energy into this food to not have it go back to somebody that needs it," says Saake.
Their Mobile Food Pantry further expands access to fresh foods in areas of the county where it is more difficult to acquire. A beverage-style truck packed with product delivers the gleaned food to these communities. Feeding San Diego also partners with local schools to set up makeshift farmers' markets in multipurpose rooms for children and their families. "For us it is really important," says Saake. "Hunger is not something we can fight on our own. It takes all of us working well together."
Inevitably, not all acquired produce passes their food safety tests. Rather than siphoning it to the trash though, volunteers break down as much compostable material as possible for the greenery. Saake says it's important to continue discussing food rescue as a larger phenomena in order to better understand how these issues, from food waste to food insecurity, are connected.
"This is a really exciting time to be in food banking because there are all these different things coming together....all these issues are being highlighted at the same time."
If you'd like to become more involved in the fight against hunger, visit feedingsandiego.org. For more information on food waste and actions you can take at home to reduce your impact, I would recommend ivaluefood.com.
Amanda Kelly is a writer and editor based in San Diego. Her work has been published in regional magazines in northwest Florida and in California. In 2015, she hiked 221 miles through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Ultimately she strives to inspire a greater appreciation for the interconnectedness of our world through stories about real people, real places and the environment. Published clips are available at AmandaKKelly.Wordpress.com.