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Repurposing Food Waste is Not a New Thing

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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?

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.
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.

How We (and Dan Barber) Cook with Trash
How We (and Dan Barber) Cook with Trash

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.

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.

My Week of Waste-Free Cooking (& How You Can Do It, Too)
My Week of Waste-Free Cooking (& How You Can Do It, Too)

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.

Tags: Cooking with Scraps, Farms