Repurposing Food Waste is Not a New Thing

July 12, 2016

Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed a slew of innovative new technologies emerge to help approach food and farming issues with fresh eyes. It’s incredibly heartening to watch, and, most of the time, I’m right there on the front lines in support.

Photo by James Ransom

But I have to admit, I’ve been baffled by the recent number of people treating their entrepreneurial efforts to repurpose food waste—whether through pop-up restaurants or praise of “ugly” fruit—as something of a novel act.

Don’t they know they’re just bringing gleaning into the twenty-first century?

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Historically, gleaning is the practice of allowing disadvantaged members of a community onto farmland at the end-of-season to gather leftover food that would otherwise be left to ruin. For centuries, farmers believed in not giving their land a second or third pass for this very reason, instead leaving produce behind for those in need.

We're all just gleaners, really. Photo by David Seaton

The cross-cultural swath covered by gleaning is both deep and wide, perhaps most famously in France, where a law protecting gleaners from punishment has been in place since 1554. Gleaning was an artistic focal point during the mid-1800s, with "Des Glaneuses (The Gleaners)" by Jean-François Millet becoming a controversial, populist touchstone of the era. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act made note of “field gleaning” as a means of fighting against food insecurity in the U.S. when it was passed in 1996. There’s even a downloadable PDF on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website entitled, “Let’s Glean!”

This is why it’s so strange that the modern effort to combat food waste has mentioned so little about gleaning as part of the backstory, especially as the social and environmental importance of the movement continues to grow.

Today, when the topic of food waste is broached, it’s frequently within some pretty narrow constraints. The most lauded efforts to tackle the issue have been confined to major metropolitan areas, and, by and large, marquee culinary names. 2015’s wastED pop-up has firmly led this charge, helmed by Blue Hill and a supporting cast that reads like a who’s who of the New York culinary elite.

On the flipside, smaller organizations across the country—those with less firepower, that don’t know the right buzzwords to use—are rarely celebrated, and America’s entire midsection is pretty roundly overlooked. Instead of rooting down into its humble origins, food waste somehow has seemed to gain a rather rarified air.

But the impetus here isn’t a fresh concept. It is simply reconfiguring a very old means of dealing with food insecurity for a modern age: an age that has to deal with waste on a commercial and retail level as well as an agricultural one. Yes, it’s wonderful that Whole Foods has started selling “ugly fruit” at locations across Northern California. But we could still benefit from a stronger touch of historical grounding.

So, why don't we talk about gleaning more?

Perhaps it’s because people believe that gleaning is a strictly ancient practice. Gleaning is referenced on multiple occasions throughout the Bible, Torah, and Quran, including as a focal point in the Book of Ruth. (Ruth is referred to as “Ruth the Gleaner” in many texts.) In each of these religious doctrines, it is explicitly stated that farmers should allow those in need to gather leftover produce from the fields after harvest, ensuring that perfectly fine food—that might not have looked the best for market—is helping to nourish the hungry.

It’s my hope that gleaning can become an umbrella term for the ways we’re attempting to fight against food waste today.

Or maybe, people are mum on gleaning because it’s largely a rural issue, and those driving the modern food waste conversation are city-dwellers. Gleaning’s absence from the discussion illustrates clearly the divide between urban and rural that so often crops up when we talk about food insecurity. Save for a few community gardens, if people attempted to glean in city neighborhoods, there quite literally wouldn’t be anywhere to go. So why mention it at all?

Even today, in former farming communities, corporate overlords aren’t chomping at the bit to share any of the farmland they’ve gobbled up. Whether in the country, suburbia, or the city, traditional gleaning isn’t a large scale, feasible answer to the problem.

But it needs to be a part of the discussion. It’s my hope that gleaning can become an umbrella term for the myriad ways we’re attempting to fight against food waste today, allowing this age-old expression to find new, important uses. The more antiquated meaning of gleaning might be outdated, but instead of shoving it aside, we should remember its past while building its future. Let’s make gleaning—and by proxy, conversations about food waste—an inclusive concept for everyone.

Under this new model, gleaning can take the form of food truck denizen Roy Choi’s ambitious new fast food project Loco’l, which seeks to “make use of every scrap, peel, and bit of gristle that comes through the kitchen.” Gleaning can mean the more traditional work done by organizations like Society of St. Andrews, which gathered and distributed more than 11,000 pounds of unused produce in 2015 to those in need. And gleaning can reference the kind of companies, like France’s Intermarche, that sell disfigured, wonky, or otherwise “ugly” fruits and vegetables (for a discounted price) instead of allowing them to rot.

We're at a juncture where the need to openly talk (and listen) to one another about food insecurity is more acute than ever. By adopting a common vernacular, we can help to ensure that everyone can be heard.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lazyretirementgirl
  • AntoniaJames
  • Smaug
  • PHIL
  • M
Sarah Baird

Written by: Sarah Baird


Lazyretirementgirl July 18, 2016
I lived for years in Pasadena where there was an active gleaning group. They would go to homes with fruit trees and pick the fruit to donate to local food banks. I believe there is a similar group in Portland, Oregon. Here in Santa Fe, I harvest my own trees and share with the food bank -- many communities would benefit from this approach.
AntoniaJames July 16, 2016
It appears that US subsidies to farmers may cause an enormous amount of pre-consumer food waste: ;o)
Smaug July 14, 2016
Actually, throwing away food scraps is a fairly new thing- the whole American use it and lose it culture is largely a post WWII phenomenon, with little history outside the ruling (and conspicuous consumption) class.
PHIL July 14, 2016
PHIL July 14, 2016
Just thought about another item worth saving , Parmesan rinds!
M July 13, 2016
1. May I suggest watching "The Gleaners and I." Great film!

2. I think part of this is the rise of food awareness coming at the same time as the rise of hipster culture. The pair are sadly linked, and one is continually throwing shade on the other as people focus on the affectations rather than investigating purposes or uses. (Canning, "artisanal" foods, gleaning..)

3. The other part is linked to the ongoing battle that rose in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the rise of food advertising -- trying to eradicate the myth to get to the food substance ... especially when that ad message has been absorbed and disseminated through generations of families.

4. This is why I love pieces like this that contextualize movements and help educate so an idea like "not wasting food" can become the status quo.

5. And why we need food shows and sites to not only focus on recipes, but the flow of recipes in kitchens -- how to buy and properly use the ingredients at hand (rather than just an off-hand "there are so many things you can use the leftover x in).
AntoniaJames July 13, 2016
PHIL and cv, thank you for your insightful, interesting comments, which contribute greatly to the relevance of this piece. ;o)
702551 July 13, 2016
There's a bigger problem that ugly produce.

It's food that's thrown out partially eaten. Here in the USA, something like 45% of all food produced is thrown away. Over the past forty years, portion sizes has been creeping up, both in restaurants and commercial food manufacturing. Heck, what was considered a standard dinner plate in the Forties and Fifties is now considered a salad or appetizer plate in today's dinnerware size range.

As Phil mentions, a lot of consumers are also interpreting "Best By..." dates as "Dangerous If Consumed After..." dates.

Unfortunately, a large percentage of the American dining public now feels that it is perfectly fine to leave large amounts of unfinished food on the plate, to be thrown in the trash. Unless that mentality can be changed, we are likely looking into a future on ongoing food waste.

A handful of people buying ugly carrots at farmers markets isn't going to offset the legions of diners who push away plates of food half-eaten at the Cheesecake Factory or Olive Garden.

It will start with thoughtfulness about sensible portions, both in terms of purchasing (e.g., produce) as well as consumption (what is ordered from a menu or dumped onto a plate).

Frankly, I think a lot of Americans have zero concept about sensible portions. That's what ultimately needs to change to get the food industry to think about ways to reduce food waste.
PHIL July 13, 2016
If I go to Cheesecake I'll order an appetizer as a main or split an entree with someone. The portions are absurd.
PHIL July 13, 2016
Hi Sarah, Ugly food is a big issue, there is a petition to get Walmart to carry ugly fruit and veggies. I think the first place to work on food waste is at home (home gleaning I guess). Better food management at home is a easy way people can impact waste, save money and reduce trash My Grandmother would waste nothing because as a child food was not as plentiful . Today people throw out food if it is passed a best by date even if it might be good, or throw out what might be left in a can (see Caroline Lange's article on tomato paste). Restaurants and markets are usually better then we are at saving food because there is a profit motive in it( as cv points out) . Wilted spinach? saute it up, overripe tomatoes? make a sauce, mushy strawberries? throw in a smoothie.
702551 July 12, 2016
One other thought: there's likely a very simple reason why "gleaning" isn't being used to describe this food recycling concept: there's a different phrase that is already in use.

I'm not sure what that is, but since the concept of reducing food waste is nothing new, there's probably a commonly accepted term for it, something that agriculture economists (yes, that's a real college major) have largely agreed on and recognize.
702551 July 12, 2016
A handful of stands at my town's farmers market have been offering discounted "ugly" produce for years, not a big deal.

Some of the smaller ranches repurpose ugly produce as livestock feed or compost and thus never bring these "uglies" to the market.

One main reason why large farms no longer practice the traditional meaning of gleaning is the emergence of the commercial food processing industry.

For example, let's say you're a cucumber farmer focused on raising crops destined for pickles. You'd grow a certain type of cucumber; the prettiest premium sized ones are pickled whole. Slightly smaller ones or ones with minor blemishes end up as spears or chips. The shabbiest ones are destined to become relish.

That scalability wasn't readily around before industrialized food manufacturing, shelf-stable storage, and widespread distribution.

Sure, the cucumber farmer could push out some of his damaged crop to the grocery distribution system, knowing that he's get less money wholesale and the product life would be shorter due to faster spoilage from the damage. At that point, does he prioritize the shipment of sub-standard items over premium ones because the damaged goods will lose their already limited market value faster?

And what's the return on him? Let's say he has two truckers at his loading dock. One driver is taking four pallets of premium product to a grocery wholesale warehouse, wholesale value $1/lb. The other driver is taking four pallets of damaged items to the same warehouse, wholesale value $0.20/lb. Both drivers charge the same amount $250. But wait, there's a relish manufacturer that will offer the same wholesale price for the damaged stuff, but is closer by, the trucking fee is $25. What would you as the farmer do?

I'm not sure one person can say "Hey, let's take this old term with an actual dictionary definition and repurpose it for the future." Heck, we haven't yet agreed on what "organic," "biodynamic," "community-supported agriculture (CSA)" or "sustainably grown" mean. Even if there are government entities that set up actual legal definitions, they don't always use the same criteria for every single food item. For sure, the definitions are often *QUITE* different in different jurisdictions/languages/etc. "Biodynamic" in the USA is not what "biodynamic" means in Europe.
702551 July 12, 2016
It's also worth noting that even a government-mandated definition changes over time. Something like the FDA's "organic" label changes between crops. But even if you grow one crop, the definitions are not static, the FDA may decide that a certain crop treatment that was used last year, if used this year, does not allow the crop to eligible to be certified as "organic." The regulations and list of banned substances changes (professional athletes are in the same boat).

Putting a label on something is still not without caveats because definitions change over time, just like you are trying to change the definition of "gleaning."

Next year, someone else might say, "that definition needs to be refined. Let's add A, B, and C, remove X, Y and Z from the definition."

Not sure if "gleaning" is the right word to get the conversation started. It might be the "fetch" of food consumption.
melissa July 12, 2016
very interesting reminder of the deliberate interconnectedness of different parts of society in the past. sort of the precursor to freeganism.