With food waste rising in the wake of COVID-19, gleaning creates a new market for local producers

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As the growing season in Iowa slowly gets underway, local fruit and vegetable farmers are beginning to plant their crisp greens and delicious heirloom tomatoes that usually fill the stands of farmers markets every summer.


However this year, due to COVID-19 and social distancing measures, farmers are having to rethink the way they operate. Some like Dogpatch Urban Gardens and Wabi Sabi are creating online stores, offering home delivery or expanding their monthly CSA shares. Other farmers may not have the capacity or resources to move their sales online.


With the uncertainty of when or if farmers markets will open this season, farmers who rely on them may be left with excess product and nowhere to sell it. “Farmers make a lot of money at markets like Downtown or Valley Junction,” said Aubrey Alvarez, Executive Director of EGDM. “Missing a month of it can be a big hit and without a market to sell, what’s happening with all that product?”


Food Waste in the time of COVID

Across the country there have been countless headlines of farmers having to plow under millions of pounds of cabbage, smash 750,000 eggs each week, or dump 3.7 million gallons of milk each day. Although food loss on farms is being exasperated by COVID-19, it isn’t a new problem.


Each year, 20 billion pounds of produce is lost on farms. To think of the amount of food being wasted is staggering, especially on an industrial scale. COVID-19 is illustrating just how fragile our food supply chain can be.


Even on a local level, loses such as these are hard to avoid. According to the USDA, this happens for a variety of reasons. Farming is unpredictable. Farmers often plant more to ensure they have enough to sell. If crops flourish, they may have too much and no market to sell it to. Sometimes yields may be too low to justify the cost of making additional passes through the field or paying the labor to do so.


Before the COVID crisis, innovative ways to reduce farm loss have emerged to help farmers donate or sell their extra product. Last year, with the guidance of our friends at Boston Area Gleaners EGDM started what was once an ancient practice to help feed those in need—gleaning!


Gleaning? What is that?

Gleaning may sound complicated, but it’s pretty simple. The word itself means “to collect” or “to gather”. It’s the act of harvesting extra produce from farms that isn’t sellable and redistributing it to organizations and people in need. Either these crops are “seconds” and have minor flaws, or there is no market for the amount of crops grown. 


Farmers are willing to donate their extra crop for those in need, but the cost of harvesting and coordinating who and where to donate can be overwhelming. Our gleaning program helps make it easy. Gleaning removes the cost barrier of labor by using volunteers to help with the harvest. The farmer is then paid for their extra produce, thus creating a new market for them to sell their product.


How does it Work?

With the guidance of the farmer, a group of volunteer “gleaners” head to the field and spend the day harvesting, sorting, and packaging the fruits or vegetables. Last year we had over 60 volunteers join us for 4 different gleaning operations like picking apples from the Henry A. Wallace Center and potatoes from Nevada. It’s a family friendly-activity and a great way to get involved, while staying socially distant!


Once harvested, the produce is typically donated to food pantries and other organizations that use it for community meals or to give to clients directly. 


It’s a win/win/win to reduce food loss and waste, create a new market for farmers and get healthy, LOCAL produce to more Iowans.


We recognize that because of COVID-19 gleaning is more important than ever and we are ramping up our efforts. With farmers potentially losing out on places to sell due to COVID-19, gleaning is essential in creating a new market for their unsold products.


As part as our evolving response to the growing needs of our community, the produce that is gleaned will be used in a variety of ways:

  • 1.) To supplement our food rescue transportation program that rescues ready-to-eat food from Kum & Go convenience store and delivers to nonprofits and affordable housing communities 3 days a week
  • 2.) Used in our weekly Operation: Fresh Produce Drop (in partnership with Loffredo Fresh Produce) where any organization that is feeding those in need can purchase produce at an extremely discounted price

How can I help?

This spring and summer EGDM is working with farmers like Middlebrook Farm, part of the new “agrihood” in Cumming to glean broccoli, leafy greens, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and pie pumpkins. We are also partnering with the Wallace Centers of Iowa for the second year in a row to glean apples and sweet potatoes. We are looking for new farmers who have or think they will have extra product and for volunteer “gleaners” to come spend the day with us in the field!


We need volunteers for the 2020 harvest season (May through late October) Sign up to receive volunteer opportunities for upcoming gleaning events!

Are you a farmer with extra crops and don’t want them to go to waste? Learn more about how we can help you and start setting up a gleaning operation today!

Joie Probst

Joie Probst

Communications & Outreach Manager