by Emily Kaminsky
Growing up on an organic vegetable farm in the Upper Valley, Allison Levin has an eye for produce that is ripe and ready for the picking. She lives with her husband and two young children next to Dog River Farm in Berlin. Occasionally, she and her family have informally helped Dog River Farm owner George Gross to “glean” excess or non-marketable produce from his fields—produce that is too small, too big, too spotted or too sunburned to meet the standards of his wholesale or retail outlets.
Gleaning is an ancient act of agricultural generosity practiced by farmers for thousands of years. It’s also codified in the Jewish Torah and features in Christian teachings: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner” (Leviticus 19:9).
While gleaning occurs informally every day on Vermont’s farms, Theresa Snow of Salvation Farms, a ten-year-old professional gleaning organization in Vermont, says we could be doing a lot more to save food from going to waste. According to her estimates, Vermont loses at least two million pounds of fruits and vegetables annually that could otherwise be going to people in need. “Vermont fruit and vegetable farmers produce hundreds of tons of edible, farm-fresh food, but often, not all of their production is sold,” says Snow. “Market fluctuations, as well as production realities like hail damage or timing, can force farmers to make a choice between harvesting one crop or moving on to the next part of their season,” she explains.
At first, Levin was gleaning just enough from Dog River Farm’s fields to share the bounty with friends and family. Then, there was the field of sunburned butternut squash. “It couldn’t be sold. And, I just couldn’t see it sitting there,” Levin says. She harvested a whopping six to eight car trunk-loads of squash that season. “I tried to find anyone who could take it and use it quickly,” she says. Thanks to her efforts, the squash was gleaned and went to people in need. FEAST, a meals program run by Just Basics, Inc. in partnership with the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, has turned produce Levin has gleaned into delicious meals for homebound seniors and adults with disabilities. And, Salvation Farms processed and delivered the produce to food pantries and other meal sites.
That was the turning point for Levin. From then on, gleaning to help those in need became a passion. But, it wasn’t until last summer when Levin became a volunteer gleaner with Just Basics, Inc. that she experienced firsthand how important coordination and organization are to making the gleaning experience successful for the farmer, the volunteer and the recipient of the produce. Theresa Snow of Salvation Farms agrees: “We realized early on that the future of gleaning in Vermont was important to our food security; but, that we need to do it professionally so that we don’t jeopardize that future.”
Excited by the prospects and eager to put her organizational skills to use, Levin sought out an internship with Salvation Farms and learned from Theresa Snow how to professionally run a volunteer gleaning program. “There’s so much more food that we could be utilizing closer to home than we are,” says Levin. “We are doing what we can to minimize our footprint on transportation, but it’s important to be able to support ourselves within our own communities. Gleaning is a relatively easy way to address the challenge.”
Levin is now the founder and program coordinator of Community Harvest of Central Vermont (CHCV), a new initiative designed to “Help Everyone Eat Local” by recovering excess produce from local farms and delivering it to schools, food pantries and other recipients. Thanks to a seed grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, Levin is piloting CHCV’s gleaning initiatives this season with Dog River Farm and several recipient sites, including the Northfield and Berlin elementary schools, the Montpelier Food Pantry, FEAST, and the Central Vermont Community Action Council food shelf in Barre. “Our goal is to fully utilize the relationships we have built with farms, organize systems and work out kinks so we can expand next year,” she says.
To run her efforts effectively, Levin’s organization has become part of the Vermont Gleaning Collective, an initiative of Salvation Farms, which has just launched an online platform that makes it easier for coordinators like Levin to recruit, register and coordinate volunteers, and to track all hours contributed and every pound that collective member organizations capture and distribute statewide. “The Gleaners Interface will decrease the time needed to complete administrative tasks, allowing us to focus our time on being in the fields recovering surplus food produced on central Vermont farms,” says Levin. “Being part of the collective, in a way, certifies to our recipients, farmers and volunteers that we are practicing a certain level of organization and professionalism. Thanks to the partnership, we are able to use systems that are tried and vetted,” she explains.
Justin Turcotte, the Chef at FEAST, looks forward to working with Levin this year. “It’s a great way to get high quality produce to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it,” he says. And, Jen Evans of Central Vermont Community Action Council’s Barre food shelf says bringing fresh produce to the food shelf is the best thing we can do: “We always run out of fresh produce.”
Levin expects to start gleaning as early as late June, although most of the activity will be August through October. Volunteer opportunities are flexible and varied. “Folks can choose from gleaning in the fields to processing, delivering, helping with administration or education and outreach,” says Levin, who will be at the “Hunger Awareness” Montpelier farmers’ market on July 12. For more information and to volunteer you can contact her at www.communityharvestvt.org or 802-229-4281 or firstname.lastname@example.org.