In an era of global media coverage it can feel like you are being constantly bombarded with humanitarian and environmental crises from all sides. The rate at which we intake this type of information can sometimes lead to feelings of discouragement and even hopelessness. In this weeks blog post, summer intern Anneke Craig, reflects on a meeting on hosted by State Rep Denise Garlick that convened leaders in the food systems movement to discuss how we can enact change at a local level and ultimately inform broader global shifts.
-In order to function, our food systems require creativity, attention, and enthusiastic representation on local, state, and national platforms. The state of Massachusetts affirmed this in 2015, establishing a plan that celebrated the opportunities and successes of Massachusetts food systems, but also addressed the challenges and problems those same systems must overcome.
The main problem? 11.9% of our population is food insecure, yet 40% of food in the United States goes uneaten. Through the MA Local Food Action Plan, four major goals were identified for a safe, healthy, and efficient future:
Similar goals are being addressed internationally. The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, and Health is an international organization that works to transform food systems, with the ultimate goal of ensuring “planetary health diets for nearly 10 billion people by 2050” (EAT-Lancet, 6).
To achieve this, EAT-Lancet recommends changes in three major areas: waste, diet, and production. We must cut waste in half, adopt flexitarian diets of many fruits and vegetables, and change our food production practices for the sake of our planet’s health and sustainability.
As Boston Area Gleaners’ new summer intern, I had the privilege of attending a talk given by EAT-Lancet Report author Dr. Walter C. Willett alongside our operations manager, Charlotte Border. The event bridged global and local perspectives--with framework from an international commission being hosted by state representative Denise Garlick, and discussed by local food justice groups in Needham and other communities.
Even Dr. Willett acknowledged the power of local action, citing the example of smoking bans that started as small town debates. The talk was followed by group discussions between attendees on five different topics--BAG, of course, discussed food rescue.
Though local to the Boston area, BAG is invested in the goals of EAT-Lancet and the MA Local Food Action Plan because we are invested in the success of our local farmers and health of our community.
In his presentation, Dr. Willett warned us: “in almost everything we are doing, we could do better,” and I realized, nervously, that we have our work cut out for us. Yet, the energetic and upbeat spirit in the room was infectious. BAG, together with representatives from food banks, research teams, schools and local farms, identified two major themes that can lead us to achieve the goals of the EAT-Lancet Commission and the MA Local Food Action Plan: supporting legislative and educational initiatives, and encouraging more collaboration to present a united front for food equity.
When our small discussion groups reconvened, it became clear that each one placed value on the power of legislation and education in food justice. EAT-Lancet agrees: one of its main strategies for achieving a planetary health diet is to “seek international and national commitment to shift toward healthy diets” though policy, sustainability education, and public health initiatives (EAT-Lancet, 21).
Legislative changes could be brought about by strengthening existing policy and passing new ones. In our group alone, we suggested more committed enforcement of state waste bans for businesses, promotion of good samaritan policies that protect food donors, and creation of standardized food labeling laws and school nutrition curricula. Keeping the lived experiences of those who are affected by legislative and educational actions in mind, supporters--like BAG--hope that structural actions will influence a long-term cultural change in our relationship to food.
The MA Local Food Action Plan identifies collaboration as “the key to success--” and given the scale of the problem, this is absolutely true (MA Local Food, 2). In line with EAT-Lancet and the MA Local Food Action Plan, our discussions also prioritized collaboration. Specific proposals included data-sharing between non-profit agencies in order to improve produce transportation and donation logistics, the formation of a Food Rescue Coalition, and recognizing that “food equity” should always have an intersectional definition. Collaborative effort is vital to long-term food equity, because it is impossible to solve such a multifaceted problem with a lone perspective.
The emphasis on collaboration at the talk helped me to understand how I fit into this movement, and this community. Boston Area Gleaners collaborate with many different entities to rescue produce across the state--local farmers, individual volunteers, and partner agencies included--to achieve our mission.
The very space in which we operate is also collaborative. I am drafting this blog post from my desk at the Waltham Field Station, the facility which Boston Area Gleaners call home. Here, eight different non-profit groups, all committed to food justice and environmental advocacy, work alongside each other in the station’s offices, greenhouses, fields, and labs.
Immersed in collaboration which only sharpens our creativity and sense of justice, I can’t help but feel hopeful for the future of our food systems. When one representative stood up to discuss strategies for fighting food waste, a voice shouted from the crowd: “You should look into is the Gleaners!” Charlotte and I turned and smiled: “That’s us!” -
By Anneke Craig
Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food.
Every year Radcliffe hosts a symposium where they honor "ideas at work in the world" and award the Radcliffe Medal to a person going above and beyond to advance the greater good. This year they convened an array of organizations working to improve the food system to honor Dolores Huerta for her food systems activism. BAG was recognized as an innovator in the field and invited to attend. Below, Leah Costlow, an Operations Team Leader, reflects on the day.
-Food is far from scarce these days, as anyone who has volunteered with Boston Area Gleaners can attest. Every year we bring hundreds of volunteers onto dozens of Massachusetts farms, where the abundance of production can be overwhelming.
Our local farmers have perfected their unpredictable craft to the greatest possible extent: year after year, residents of Massachusetts enjoy delicious, locally grown produce ranging from apples and winter squash to fresh ginger and callaloo.
And the realities of farming mean that every year there is a surplus. Sometimes crop conditions are so good that commodity prices plummet, making it difficult for farmers to afford the labor costs to harvest what they’ve grown. Sometimes crop conditions are poor, and crop quality falls short of the aesthetic that consumers have grown accustomed to seeing.
That’s where we come in: BAG exists because farms produce more than they can sell.
But what about hunger? Is hunger inevitable, in the way that surplus seems to be an inevitable part of modern agriculture? I struggled with this question while attending Radcliffe Day, the annual symposium that brings activists, policy experts, and other thinkers to the Radcliffe Institute for a day of conversation.
This year’s event, which took place on May 31st, centered around food and justice: the intrepid labor activist Dolores Huerta received the Radcliffe Medal in recognition of her groundbreaking work on behalf of farmworkers in California and beyond, and panelists for the event included sustainability luminaries Alice Waters and Francis Moore Lappé.
During the forum entitled “Nourishing America,” Waters and Lappé butted heads with experts in health policy and agricultural economics. I found myself siding with the policy wonks: the sustainability movement has not done enough to reach farmworkers, minorities, and the millions living in food insecurity. We’ve gotten very good at growing food, but we could be much better at feeding people.
As one panelist noted, hunger relief, although vitally important, doesn’t address the fundamental causes of hunger and economic inequality in our country. When you look at it this way, then yes, hunger starts to seem sadly inevitable.
Meanwhile, BAG and other food justice organizations set up shop in the so-called Marketplace of Ideas, where everyone in attendance could learn about the innovative ways in which these organizations are tackling issues within our food system. I spoke with many people who were thrilled to learn about what we do at BAG, some of whom had never heard of gleaning before. Almost everyone was shocked to learn that approximately 20% of food goes to waste without ever leaving the farm.
They were also delighted to learn that BAG rescued 820,000 pounds of this surplus in 2018, and is on track to glean 1 million pounds in our fast-approaching 2019 season. Of course, the reality behind these record-breaking numbers is a staggering level both of food waste and of food insecurity. In the face of this reality, I found it tremendously motivating to be deep in conversation with interested, passionate people who were all ears concerning food and justice. It was inspiring to look around me and see the hard work and daring ideas represented by the organizations and professionals in attendance.
The day’s highlight, however, was undoubtedly Dolores Huerta. In a captivating interview, Huerta recounted her work as a founder of the United Farm Workers of America and subsequently as a feminist activist.
At the age of 89, Huerta spoke with an intensity and clarity of purpose that I found contagious.
She recalled her early encounters with farm workers as a young teacher, when she first realized how deeply disenfranchised these people were. Not only did farm workers lack basic workplace protections and bargaining power, they couldn’t even patronize food pantries when crop failures robbed them of income.
How did Huerta ever imagine she could mobilize these people to fight those in power? By remembering, she said, that people have the power. We don’t have to take or win the power, because power resides in every person. And in her experience, empowering the powerless had big results, as the UFW eventually won unprecedented rights for California farm workers—rights that have yet to be established elsewhere in the US.
By the end of her address, Huerta had the crowd on its feet. We were applauding her iconic accomplishments, and chanting her iconic words, "Sí, se puede.”
More than simply applauding Huerta’s amazing past, we were buoyed by her reminder to look forward. Yes, we can build justice into our food system. Yes, we can enact policies to effect greater change. At this moment in time, BAG and our many hunger relief partners are working within a deeply flawed structural framework, in which food waste and hunger are both considered inevitable. But in the spirit of Dolores Huerta, BAG’s mission of bringing food to families recognizes that the people have the power. We don’t have to wait for those policy changes. We can start right now.-
By Leah Costlow
Click here to read more about the event from The Harvard Gazette.
In part three of a series by Tess Tomlinson she discusses the nature of farming and the importance of being able to toggle between delight and loss gracefully, without clinging to either state.
-In many respects, the answers and idols of the questions I’ve been posing are found in the fields in which we work. By definition, farmers must ready themselves to the extent that they can, importing specific and emotional wisdom of many generations, taking relevant precautions using current data, and sourcing advice from neighbors. And, the second part of the definition : farmers must be ready for nothing to go as planned.
I thought of writing to my old boss Kate of Neighborhood Farm, to ask her for examples of this phenomenon but could immediately picture her replying, whilst on her morning cruise through her fields - it happens every day. To watch her move quickly between plant rows, one would imagine her operating with an internal, sophisticated navigation system able to observe, process and translate into action every inch she sees. Perhaps we’ve all seen experts of one kind or another scan their domain and then know exactly how to proceed. That variables descend at random on her land and trickle over in seed packets from Italy make her quickness impressive and crucial. She doesn’t always have a map.
Every year that BAG grows, we enter into the navigation system of another farmer, becoming part of their plans, their surprises, their comfort. No farmer (that’s pretty broad) likes to see whole sections of kale go unharvested but if they have us on speed dial, they may salvage some of the effort and attention before needing to move on to what’s next. Their decisions must be made with clear minds, with minds prepared for and practiced in moving through loss and delight, error and success.
A few days ago, we washed and repacked three pallets of daikon radishes donated by Siena Farms. Then a few days after that, we went back and did it all again. There are something like 700 cases of daikon available to us. Why? Daikon is very good for the soil and some years it must be trendy because some years it sells well. This year wasn’t a daikon year apparently, but the Greater Boston Food Bank will take six pallets and Dylan will spend time trying to find other takers.
Even closer to home than the farmers whom we rely upon, our managers are privy to the winds of fate (sorry) and bounds of time and market, and need to be both informed and open, critical, cautious and joyfully free to say yes and go from there. For them too, decisions must be made with minds prepared for and practiced in moving gracefully through loss and delight.
If we can make it to a place of balanced skill and ease within a context of consorting one on one with circumstance and internal stimuli, can we do it in stride with others who are working with their own versions of balance?-
By Tess Tomlinson
Tess Tomlinson is an experienced yoga practitioner & teacher, has managed restaurant staff, planned weddings, worked for a band on a nationwide tour and completed a month long silent meditation retreat. She dropped into our Operations Team seamlessly during the busiest part of the season in 2017. Her words are a testimony to her unique ability to maintain objectivity and process experiences on a deep level.
-How can we balance being beginners with retaining wisdom and gaining expertise? For as enriching as it can be to approach life with a beginner’s mind, there are times in which we must act while in possession of references. The endless beginner can start to grate on fellow team members if always deflecting decision making upon others. She can reliably fall all alone if engaging life without some recall of skill.
As with in a yoga or driving trucks, we must transport what we have learned in order to meet or match situations with inquiring, spacious minds, rather than empty-seeming minds actually filled with doubt. It is one thing to approach each new situation with a clogged sense that we don’t have the right information or the bits we know don’t add up, or to go about life willfully avoiding retaining information so as to aggressively stay a beginner. And it is a whole other thing to clunkily carry out ahead of us all that we know, effectively blocking new information from entering. Where is the middle line? And does that line look and feel different when working alone or within a group?
I wonder sometimes what our volunteers feel when they are asked to effectively drop into our way of thinking, contravening perhaps their instinct for what is the right move at the moment. As a ladder trip leader, I can rely on at least one joyful tree climber to completely follow his own path, up into trees with tiny top branches, cradled by wobbly corners. In any environment in which we relate with others, there will be some sense of ‘self-sacrifice’ as we lay our own agendas down before us and they are ignored or misheard or noted and forgotten. Some of us will be accustomed to this feeling and for others of us it will feel unfamiliar and perhaps lead to a grievance.
So maybe the question is, how can our concept of ourselves and a confidence in our own judgement be steady enough to keep us and others from harm but open enough to allow in the unfolding wisdom of each new minute?-
By Tess Tomlinson
Tess Tomlinson, who's entering her third season with BAG, reflects on why she's drawn to the work.
-On one of my first truck trips to Appleton farm in Ipswich, MA, after loading from their wash station dock behind their beautiful barn on their beautiful, preserved land, I steered us - Patsy the truck, Leah our OPS leader, and the twenty or so banana boxed vegetables - back towards 128. As I slowed the truck nearing the first of a few crowded intersections, a small bird smacked into the windshield and as the momentum of the truck slowed, it simply sank into the wiper shelf and I did nothing productive and logical Leah said, just turn on the wipers.
I can recall that intersection clearly and shudder each time I pass through it now and so when I thought, I’ll write about the intersection, in gleaning, of all my interests, unfortunately for sensitive readers, this was the story that came to mind.
I do think reactivity is the logical point to glean from this story and the one that does in fact tie what our team and volunteers do when driving, planning, harvesting, deciding not to harvest, sorting, etc, to yoga, wedding planning, restaurant managing, etc.
In all that I’ve found interesting over the years has been a need for efficient decisions, trust, and micro adjustments to the mind and body in order to cope with and surpass blockages, bangs and fatigue. And those are just the adjustments needed to be cool in the midst of turmoil; there is tempering needed too when faced with elation and the desire to hold onto good feelings forever.
Impressive are those who led me on my first gleans and who have joined the team since who can look at a situation and decide what’s optimal in that moment for all involved. It is a huge challenge and we don’t always get it right because we are humans, which is why good-natured, friendly, eager, volunteers play such a crucial role.
I skimmed recent blog posts and recalled faces from summer corn and fall apples and winter apples, and feel so grateful that as we the staff are called on to react, we are surrounded in many cases by hyper-intelligent, loyal, brave and all around brightly lit others who embolden and challenge us, always with kindness.
That’s the true intersection of gleaning with any other interest I’ve ever had - where kindness allows for an atmosphere in which I’m comfortable constantly learning and circumstance makes a beginner of me at every moment.-
By Tess Tomlinson
Helen Palmer sporting a solar powered hat to keep her cool in the summer heat.
Helen Palmer remembers when she first heard about BAG—it was at a fair in Cambridge on green activism—and the moment itself is crystal clear.
“I signed up at once,” she said. “In a way, you don’t need to be convinced. It’s just such a no-brainer. If you think about it, it’s very simply forging a link in the chain that’s missing.” It’s filling a need for farmers, who have produce to spare, and for families, who are hungry for it.
Early on, Palmer, who is 72 and a public radio producer, would make harvesting trips with BAG founder Oakes Plimpton in the days when the organization was still getting grounded. Some of the expeditions were memorable.
“I recall going out in the snow to glean potatoes only to discover they were frozen in the ground,” said Palmer. Nowadays, things are a little more organized. And from the beginning, said Palmer, some really dedicated farmers were part of the initiative, even though there was no way for them to write their BAG contributions off their taxes, and they had to put up with strangers, many of whom knew little about farming, out their fields.
“I think the teamwork is absolutely awesome,” said Palmer. “I think the farmers are heroes. And I think the staff are amazing in terms of the amount of work they do.”
Not only does BAG attract hard workers, said Palmer, all of them are personable.
“The amazing thing is I’ve never met anyone at the gleaners that isn’t nice,” she said. “When it comes to the staff, they have such a great work ethic…I’m awed by them.”
And for Palmer, whose professional life requires her to spend a good deal of time behind a computer, thinking, the chance to dig in the dirt for three or six hours a week is a good antidote.
“It’s a perfect recreation for me,” she said. And inspirational, too. Though Palmer, who lives in Cambridge, has a garden and works conscientiously at it, she says she’s not terribly efficient. So, when she goes out to a farm and sees what’s possible, it’s exhilarating.
“People who know what they’re doing can produce these amazing crops that are there at the peak of their freshness, and to deliver to people who otherwise wouldn’t get it—it’s just so perfect,” said Palmer.
Sally Thompson, Devoted Volunteer (in light blue shirt, above)
For Sally Thompson, the Boston Area Gleaners popped up on her radar at just the right moment. About to retire, the Acton resident, now 66, was looking about for meaningful volunteer opportunities she could pursue when her time became her own.
Thompson’s spouse happened to visit the Wayland Winter Market one day in early 2016 where an enthusiastic BAG representative was handing out brochures and telling passers-by about all the good work the organization does. When the information made it home to Thompson, she knew she had found a new calling.
“I had grown up on a farm and had memories of the fun, the challenges, and the importance of growing crops to feed people,” said Thompson. “I also was retiring from a long career as a physician with an awareness of the importance of healthy food and a healthy environment to reduce the risk of medical illness.”
BAG’s mission spoke to her: Thompson, who is also a volunteer staffer at a food pantry in a neighboring town, was keen on the idea of rescuing surplus crops so they could be used to help those in need. Soon, she was joining gleaning trips, donating money, and volunteering in other ways, too. At the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, for instance, she helped staff a BAG table, and whenever she can, Thompson spreads the word.
“I talk about gleaning when I am in social settings to increase interest and perhaps volunteers,” she said.
And after listening to Thompson, who wouldn’t want to go on a gleaning trip?
“The experience is lovely,” she said, “whether picking apples in an orchard on a beautiful late summer day, picking sweet corn standing in long rows, cutting chard and kale kneeling in a field of greens, or picking tomatoes off their fragrant vines.”
For those who might worry about the work being too hard, don’t fret. “It can be physically challenging, but staff lean in to make the trip fit your ability,” said Thompson. “It is physically rewarding to glean. The physical nature of each trip differs. I see a gleaning trip as an opportunity to be physically active.”
The camaraderie and knowledge-sharing are additional bonuses, added Thompson. “I have met wonderful people while gleaning,” she said. “Retired professors who can speak very knowledgeably about many subjects. Other physicians with whom I can feel connection. Engineers are always fun. Teenagers meeting high school community service requirements provide their insights and energy.”
Gleaning organizations like BAG should be encouraged nationwide, said Thompson. “Knowing that I am participating in a process that reduces food waste between the farmers' fields and those in need is immensely fulfilling,” she said. “As a physician I am aware of the value of fresh vegetables and fruits to good health. In my retirement I feel I can continue my career-long mission to help those in need and improve their health. In fact, I feel I am helping large numbers of people rather than one person at a time.”
Rob Ann, Tess and Brad Tomlinson
There’s a good deal of truth in the saying about a photo being worth a thousand words: If Rob Ann Tomlinson hadn’t been intrigued by a full-page newspaper spread picturing a harvester in a field, she might never have learned about the Boston Area Gleaners. She might have skipped the story all together.
Instead, BAG has become a family affair for the Tomlinsons of Wellesley. Not only did Rob Ann, 72, decide to become a volunteer, she convinced her husband, Brad, (pictured above left) who had recently retired, to give it a try. It didn’t take him long to get hooked—deeply—and now, years later, their daughter, Tess, (pictured above right) has joined the BAG staff.
“I just liked the idea of it,” recalled Rob Ann. “It was pretty. It was outside. We enjoyed it entirely.”
That was all back in 2013, when the operation was a good deal simpler than now.
“I remember that first summer we caught the beginning of corn season,” said Brad, 74. “It was beautiful. Hot and hard work, but we were both healthy and able to do the work. It wasn’t nearly the organized and mechanized-assisted activity that it is today. It was pushing a banana box through the corn row and filling it up.” When the boxes were brimming, volunteers would lug them out of the field themselves, or call to one of the coordinators for help.
Today, Brad said, refrigerated trucks and front-loading buckets for apples make the work more efficient for everyone. But the charm of those early days, he added, lives on in the camaraderie and friendliness volunteers find in the fields.
“It’s still wondrous,” said Rob Ann.
And it’s still hard work. That’s inevitably the nature of farming. But knowing that up front helps volunteers gauge what they’re capable of, and which crops might suit them best.
“While there is a lot of bending, kneeling, squatting, lifting, and walking involved, there is no pressure on volunteers to do more than they can handle. Therefore, there is no reason for a healthy person of any age not to give it a try,” said Brad. “If you have flexibility in your schedule, it’s a wonderful way to fit in volunteer time.”
And BAG makes it easy: When gleaners sign up for a harvesting trip, they have a choice of crops, locations, and weather conditions, Brad noted.
For the Tomlinsons, there’s satisfaction in working with an organization that is striving to keep pace with a critical local need, and providing healthy eating options for people who might not otherwise have them.
“It’s exciting to be part of something that’s growing so much in terms of the pounds of food that is gathered and delivered to the various food pantries,” said Brad.
“It’s not a can of DelMonte’s green beans we’re talking about here,” said Rob Ann. “It’s pretty exciting to be able to produce high-value products.”
At 60, Somerville resident Todd Kaplan suspects he may be one of the longest-serving volunteers among the ranks of many who flock to the fields for the Boston Area Gleaners. He started picking produce for BAG back in the early 2000's when the organization trundled volunteers from farm to farm in a rickety, old van that belonged to founder Oakes Plimpton.
“That was the sole vehicle for Boston Area Gleaners” said Kaplan. “We are so much more professional nowadays.”
Since the beginning, Kaplan, a lawyer with Greater Boston Legal Services, has been drawn to BAG’s mission, especially after all he had learned about food delivery while volunteering in a soup kitchen in Washington, DC where up to 300 people a day were receiving meals.
“When you’re doing that kind of volume, you really have to do a lot of scrounging for food,” said Kaplan. At the wholesale markets, his team would retrieve foodstuffs on the verge of being discarded. “That got me into the idea that food recovery was a great thing and that you could turn it into something…to fulfill a real need.”
So, when Kaplan learned about BAG’s approach—gathering good, fresh food and getting it to people in need—it struck a deep chord.
“It was very attractive to me. I said that’s something I really want to do,” he recalled. “Once I started, the thing that kept me going was not only the mission but also feeling that we were really giving a gift of high-quality food to people in need.” Plus, a lot of the food is low-spray or organic—the kinds of produce that can be priced out of reach for many people.
“All of those things have kept me going, in addition to the camaraderie of people working together,” said Kaplan. “And, of course, it’s really nice to be out in the country. I don’t really get out to farms at all, except for gleaning.”
Even though he’s busy with work and frequently has to rely on carpooling to get to the farms, Kaplan still manages to squeeze in about 10 gleaning trips a year.
“Corn and apples are definitely the favorites,” said Kaplan. But he’s not averse to heading out on winter days to glean carrots, potatoes, and kale—all of which are hardy enough to survive the cold.
“It’s kind of nice, as long as it’s not raining,” he said, recalling one December trip to a farm where the gleaners stumbled on a row of pristine greens stretching almost as far as the eye could see. The farmer said they could take as much as they wanted as he had harvested all he needed and was about to plow the produce under to nourish the soil.
As wonderful as that gift was, there was a limit to how much the gleaners could actually take, said Kaplan, because the other side of the equation is distribution.
“One of the biggest challenges is matching the food to people in need—getting it to them quickly enough. And figuring out if you can hold stuff back in storage,” said Kaplan. “It’s a logistical thing.”
Logistics. That may be the operative word for BAG as it continues to scale up its operations. And from where Kaplan sits, the challenge isn’t just about how to get harvests from field to table, it’s how to get volunteers from home to field: He longs for a more robust carpooling system.
If only Zip cars could be gleaned.