When they're not working hard to recover crops from the field, our apprentices are learning as much as they can about gleaning, agriculture, and sustainable food systems. In honor of last week being the first International Day of Awareness of Food Loss & Waste, here are a few reflections penned by some team members regarding on-farm food waste, and the solutions & challenges surrounding it!
Tim Offei-Addo: Food Waste Through the Lens of International Development
My Dad frequently talks about the challenges of farming in Ghana. The torrential rains of the rainy season and the harsh winds of the harmattan. He always spent most time talking about post-harvest losses. The corn that sat in warehouses drying ruined by rodents foraging for food, Tomatoes that didn’t make it to market because of poor transit systems. These ideas framed my perception of food waste. I thought about it and still think about it in an international context where there is so much conversation around enhancing the capitalist machine, via an increase in domestic food processing (i.e. Oranges to Orange Juice).
Since joining Boston Area Gleaners, I’ve begun to frame the conversation around food waste in a completely different way. BAG strives to foster a thriving local farming community through their partnerships with farms and hunger relief efforts. They not only rescue food and decrease food waste; they also bring strengthen the viability of local agriculture as they help farmers with weeding, harvesting and food distribution. The holistic nature of this community model benefits all parties who partake in a “glean” while effectively distributing food.
As I think about my agriculture development interests, specifically those on the African continent, this idea of community has always been central to solutions of post-harvest loss. Finding ways to distribute food and provide labor while diminishing waste in a local area is a practical and necessary goal that may have far greater impact than the construction of a processing factory.
The Linn Benton Food Share Gleaning Program is another example of a gleaning organization that cultivates community while providing nutritious food for families in need and decreasing food waste. Through their model, some of the people in need who are able to participate in gleans, go out as volunteers and participate in the harvest and the repacks. These gleaning members are able to take half of their glean home, with the other half being donated to gleaning members who are unable to participate in the glean for whatever reason. It’s an interesting way of sourcing labor, educating people about local agriculture, and cultivating community.
Mauri Trimmer: On-Farm Food Loss
The work of food recovery and hunger relief often feels daunting. The sheer volume of uneaten (wasted) food, as we’ve seen in the “Just Eat It” documentary or and in through the research done by Lisa Johnson and others, brings on feelings of anxiety and frustration which hamper efforts to curb the waste. Modern industrial capitalism is full of wastefulness and generally not much inclined to prevent such waste — unless federal or state-level efforts are made to incentivize efficiency. While food waste and trash are non-synonymous systems, the techniques practiced in Sweden to encourage recycling have always stood out to me. Rather than an incentive based model, rewarding folx for reducing and reusing, they use a pseudo-punitive model: all citizens must take their own trash to the dump and pay a fee dependent on the volume/quantity of garbage. When you stop to think about it, this makes sense: throwing things out which could be reused has an extremely negative effect (greenhouse gases, landfill toxicity, etc.), yet contemporary systems of waste management reallocate the consequences to someone and someplace else. Just the other day on a trip out to Farmer Dave’s we passed a waste treatment facility in Lowell — need I list the reasons why Lowell has this smelly facility, and not Brookline or Chestnut Hill?
Food costs far too much and simultaneously does not cost enough. Researchers working in the field (haha) note the plunging prices of processed foods (value-added?) contrasted with the skyrocketing price of fresh produce. In talking with local farmers, we begin to understand that almost none of those costs are passed down to the farmer. Just how did we end up with a system where fresh snap peas are more expensive than Harvest Snaps, an expeller-produced mixture of rice and green beans, crunchy and perfectly seasoned? From the logics of industrial capital, this makes sense: an economy of scale enables parent company Calbee to purchase and sell at a volume that small-scale pea growers, selling direct-to-consumers, cannot compete with.
A huge part of this has to do with an unequal pattern of subsidization and government aid in the world of agriculture. At BAG we have been discussing how the USDA response to COVID-19 — the Farmers to Families program — worked exceedingly well for fresh produce, yet is now falling apart under pressure from other farm sectors. My ongoing frustration lies with the unequal streams of money flow — we pay enough taxes and grow enough food to end hunger in this country, and perhaps contribute to the hunger-eradication effort elsewhere on the planet. Yet the priorities of those who can spend in government cannot be with big Agribusiness, or with the country’s economy. I’m too frustrated to even write a coherent argument in 500 words. We know the problems and have some solutions — how sexy do we have to make it for the funding to roll in?
Drew Blazewicz: Evaluating Food Waste
Farm-level food loss is a poorly understood area of loss in the agricultural supply chain. Due to a lack of field level studies, most estimates are based on growers reported losses, which tend to be underestimates depending on their definition of marketable or edible losses, as well as the social undesirability of “food loss”. That said, it is an important area to study and collect data on for increasing growing efficiency and the sustainability of our food systems.
For most growers, the primary driver for food loss is the high cost of harvest and decreasing market prices throughout the season. This can lead to high levels of not only edible but marketable food left unharvested as growers deem additional harvests uneconomical. One benefit to a more accurate picture of the marketable food being left behind is the potential for additional harvests if the potential yield can outweigh harvest costs. Additionally, the high rates of unmarketable yet edible food left in the field open the possibility of new markets; selling the aesthetically deficient but perfectly nutritious surplus to food processors who have different standards than fresh produce markets.
Studies which provide more accurate pictures of food surplus could allow farmers to plan for greater yields by incorporating less aesthetically demanding buyers, or connecting with gleaning or other produce recovery organizations which can take advantage of the unharvested surplus without incurring additional costs. By providing more accurate numbers representing higher yields, growers may also be able to market entire fields of produce to retailers pre-harvest. Additionally, performing a more complete harvest by taking even the less desirable but edible produce, could improve efficiency and allow for marketing to alternative buyers. Overall the situations and potential strategies vary greatly by region, farm, and even crop, but all begin with an accurate, measurement based understanding of surplus crops.
At BAG we are in an excellent position to aid in this research and supply accurate numbers for field level loss. We can measure what we harvest during a gleaning trip, taking care, when possible, to separate traditionally marketable produce from unmarketable but edible produce, as well as sampling inedible produce we leave behind. Taking this approach will increase our time spent during field gleans, but has the potential to greatly increase availability of produce in the future. Additionally, BAG works with a variety of farms, which can help in developing a holistic picture of field level loss and dissemination of findings and resources.