Fighting hunger, one tree at a time

The Eugene Area Gleaners were established when the founders were faced with their own food insecurity and saw others in their community struggling to feed their families as well.

The United States grows and exports more food than any other country in the world.

In spite of that abundance, however, the USDA reports that in 2017 more than 11 percent of households in the United States, approximately 40 million people, faced some level of food insecurity.

Additionally, it has been estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of all food moved through the American supply chain is wasted each year. This fills our landfills, but not our bellies, at record rates.

What that means is that while the United States is producing far more food than is needed to feed the entire population, that food just isn’t getting to the people.

A local nonprofit in Eugene, Oregon, a small city with a food insecurity rate of 14.5 percent, fully three times the national average, is trying to fix that, one tree at a time.

The Eugene Area Gleaners were established in 2008 when the founders were faced with their own food insecurity and saw others in their community struggling to feed their families as well.

Cart with apples The Gleaners harvest from urban gardens with surpluses and larger farms across the region. (Photo: Shannon Cooper)

Starting as just a small, independent group, they set out knocking on neighbor’s doors asking if they could pick the unharvested fruit from their trees.

The initial goal was simple: get those fruits that might otherwise have gone to waste out of people’s yards and into people’s kitchens.

Now, more than 700 members strong, they use a county-wide network of volunteers to glean unharvested foodstuffs from private property with the consent and knowledge of the owners, and distribute those foods to group members and their families in addition to other local groups such as food pantries, banks, and shelters.

And it’s evolved into far more than just fruit trees.

The Gleaners harvest from urban gardens with surpluses and larger farms across the region, as well as partnering with local bakeries to provide bread to their members year-round. Each winter, they distribute seeds donated by local seed companies and host a community seed exchange for members.

They even work in collaboration with the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service to process and preserve meats and firewood that result from their operations.

It’s a popular program that’s growing fast, in part because of the sheer volume of available food. A single apple tree can produce hundreds of pounds of fruit each season and most gleans harvest from multiple sources.

In 2015 the group harvested nearly 8,000 pounds of food, donating half of that to local food banks. Just three years later, in 2018, they participated in 140 individual gleans, harvesting 49,000 pounds of food that might otherwise have gone to waste.

But that’s not all.

While the overarching goal of the Gleaners is to get food directly to hungry people, they are also committed to the creation of sustainable and stable foodways through cooperative community efforts.

To that end, they provide gardening, cooking, and preservation education to members and the community through local events, while also offering tools and materials for harvesting and processing through a lending library.

And, sensitive to challenges like time and physicality in access to gleaning, the group also coordinates transportation and childcare for members and offers opportunities to participate (for a food share) that do not require the ability to physically harvest.

It’s not such a radical or new idea — the concept of gleaning has been around a long time.

While modern definitions of the term refer to the gradual collection of resources or information from a variety of sources, gleaning has been a historically agricultural term referring to the gathering of grain or produce from fields after the completion of commercial harvest.

The roots of the practice date back to biblical times; the Old Testament instructs farmers to leave some portion of harvest for widows, travelers, and orphans.

Today, gleaning is still considered a human right in several countries but the practice has only found popularity in the United States recently, in the post-Great Recession period.

Child holds bucket of hazelnuts It’s not such a radical or new idea, the concept of gleaning has been around a long time. (Photo: Melody Meek)
Perhaps what makes gleaning so special as a human practice is its distinction from gathering or foraging, both practices which occur on public or communal lands and service only those who participate in the harvest.

Modern gleaning is different because it involves not just the input of human labor but also generosity on all sides. And with gleaning, everyone receives.

The landowners get free labor, which is increasingly important as our rural population ages and younger generations increasingly migrate to cities. They also typically receive either half the harvest or the equivalent in a tax-deductible donation.

The harvesters receive a share of the glean and valuable, region-specific foodways and cultivation knowledge.

Perhaps most importantly, the donation of time, energy, and resources from both sides helps creates a healthy, more resilient community. It’s a sign of hope and a tangible step towards food security and justice.

Brandy Collier, co-founder of the Eugene Area Gleaners, shares what makes the group so valuable:

“This group has been an amazing source of knowledge, wisdom, and community. I've learned so much about preservation, history, what our locality has to offer, and honestly just that most people are so good and giving and kind most of the time!”
Writer Ruby McConnell

Ruby McConnell is a writer, geologist, environmental advocate whose work has appeared in Oregon Humanities, Mother Earth News, and Grain Literary Journal. She is author of A Woman’s Guide to the Wild and A Girl’s Guide to the Wild. You can almost always find her in the woods.

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