Gleaning from local farms to urban tables

Food is both a necessity and a luxury for many today. In particular the local food movement, although thriving in the U.S., is still unaffordable for some compared to cheaper mass-produced items at a supermarket. Thankfully cities like New York have taken on this dilemma with programs that convert EBT and food stamps to currency accepted at more than 50 of the city’s Greenmarkets, or farmer’s markets. In smaller cities such as Ithaca, where farms are physically closer, food equity has taken on other programmatic forms, in particular gleaning.

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One of our weekly CSA boxes

Living within Ithaca’s “ten square miles surrounded by farms” my husband and I are blessed enough to be able to enjoy the weekly bounty of a CSA and locally sourced ingredients at our favorite restaurants. Upon moving here I was also excited by the sheer number of organizations dealing with food issues, from canning and harvesting classes offered by the Cornell Cooperative Extension, to the research of Cornell’s Agriculture School, to local food writing and a farmer’s market that runs five days a week throughout the city. I still noticed however, that this abundance of local food choices is slightly pricey and possibly not obtainable for many lower-income families.

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Our early October CSA Vegetables

Thankfully though there are organizations in Ithaca that recognize these inequalities and are working towards greater food justice. With such an abundance of local produce some organizations recognized that the process of gleaning could be useful in filling the gaps. Gleaning was the practice of purposefully leaving some crops after the harvest for “the poor and the travelers” according to the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:9-10). Today this practice focuses both on minimizing food waste and purposefully gathering donations of produce from farmers and markets for those in need.

Ithaca Community Harvest is one such group working with local farmers and volunteers to bring fresh local foods to all people through donations. One of their programs, which I volunteered with this summer, provided snacks of fresh fruits and vegetables to students at a local elementary school daily. The program sourced as much of their produce as possible from local farmers’ donations, including Cornell Orchard’s apples and greens from Wood’s Earth Farm while I was volunteering. Besides providing nutritious food options to children that may not get them, the snack program also provided a better appreciation for where their food comes from and the seasonality of their favorite items. The program has since been expanded to another Ithaca school and is under the management of Wood’s Earth Living Classroom.

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 Classroom snacks from Ithaca Community Harvest’s Fresh Snack Program

In September a Food Justice Fair and Festival was also held in Ithaca hosted by GreenStar, a local natural food market and cooperative. Held at a downtown elementary school, this event differed significantly from typical academic summits on food justice issues by bringing together the community, in their own neighborhood, and advocates with family friendly events and information sessions. The party-like atmosphere surrounding this summit helped to provide an interactive element that will hopefully continue to propel the great work of Ithaca’s food justice groups.

Ithaca is also not alone in this effort to glean underutilized food in the community.  Emily Horton of The Vegetarian Times recently published an article titled “The Gleaners” on other gleaning efforts in Atlanta, Georgia; Santa Cruz, California; Springfield, Massachusetts; Boulder, Colorado, and other towns.  Another larger gleaning effort is organized by The Society of St Andrews across the Southeastern U.S. This non-profit organization serves as a “gleaning network” by organizing volunteers to glean food from willing farms for local food banks at a large-scale. For others interested in starting programs in their own communities the USDA also has created a “Let’s Glean!” toolkit.

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“The Gleaners” Vegetarian Times article, illustrations by Monica Ramos

While there is much more work to be done in terms of food justice across the world the efforts I have noticed in Ithaca, and across the US, have given me hope that more equitable access to food is possible. From organizations reviving the biblical practice of gleaning to provide donations to food programs, to Ithaca’s food justice festival, the many efforts in this city are helping to reinvent how we provide food for all.

All of the photos were taken by the writer, with the exception of the screen shot from the Vegetarian Times, September 2014 Issue.

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