By Richard Lin
As typical of pandemic times, I have had a largely atypical experience during my internship at BAG. If I told myself a year ago that I would be working at the Gleaners, my past self would have expected a ten-week summer internship, with fields and crops and an office. In reality, I have experienced almost none of those things. The office is instead my home; “ten weeks” have lasted well into October; and for me, food isn’t found in banana boxes and gleaning trips, but in numbers and spreadsheets.
In almost all ways then, I have departed from my known and my comfortable, and I have so many thoughts and so much to say about my experiences navigating the unusual. But I don’t have unlimited space, and so for now, I am glossing over the difficulties of home-office life (after all, I am sure many of us have lived through it first hand), or the struggles I have had navigating thesis writing and my project at BAG (it’s my first time working on one, and also two, long-term sustained self-lead projects). In the short space I have then, I want to talk about something that is at the heart of my work here at BAG. Something dreary and beautiful, noisy and elegant: data.
In our modern, technologically ingrained lives, data is monolithic. It is the engine behind everything from county funding decisions to the incredibly accurate targeted ads you see on Google. Yet, in its ubiquity, it becomes mundane. We are so deeply situated in data, so surrounded by its effects, that we easily forget about the massive efforts required to make it useful—and, when it does become useful, the truly remarkable and versatile things that it can do.
Of course, I may be speaking too broadly, and you may in fact be in constant appreciation and awe of data. But personally, when I started my data project at BAG, I ran into some fundamental difficulties. For context, the task at hand was essentially to address the following question:
“How can we use data from the distribution records that we and partner agencies have to better the food system?”
And all of a sudden, data wasn’t something that directly served me. It wasn’t something that built and supported the structures that surrounded my life. It was, instead, a giant heap of numbers and letters that had no structure to it. And so, I ran into my first realization, and the big problem.
Data doesn’t do anything. Someone has to do something to it.
Given any amount of thought, this statement may be incredibly obvious. But generally, when we interface with data, the system around it has already been built. It becomes a real mountain to climb, however, when no previous work has been done. Most raw data won’t scream out any discernable conclusions. You have to go searching for it instead.
So then…where do you start? Well at first, I had this big spreadsheet which listed all the food pantries that the Greater Boston Food Bank serves. So, I just began calling up each pantry, and getting information about their food stocks and their demands. And in talking to the pantry directors, in learning their systems and terminology and procedures, I began to understand what things were important to focus on, and what things could be shelved for another time. Using that, I dove into the distribution data that each partner organization had given me. Of course, each organization’s spreadsheets had different categories and phrasing, so I had to digest each dataset, get clarification from its sources, and make compatible what was initially incompatible. I spent my whole summer doing this—in fact, I am still doing this—and it was through this process that I had my second realization, and with it, a solution to the big problem and a process for my project.
Data is as deep as you let it be. And its uses are what you make of it.
Refraining from making any grand analogies to life here, I really did appreciate this realization. Because unlike the first realization, it’s deceptively NOT obvious. Given a list of hundreds of pantry locations, what do you do with it? Well, you can plot it:
But then what? You could run a density analysis:
And then, at the same time, you can download some publicly accessible census data, run that through a couple of algorithms (which you can borrow or develop yourself), and plot that too:
And then you can compare that to the pantry locations, and see which neighborhoods are potentially being underserved. Or, you could plot the distribution data you received from various organizations, and compare that instead:
And you can show this on maps, like I’ve done above. Or you could do it with charts:
But it all came from data sets that looked like this (blurred because of contact information):
And here is my third, and final, realization.
Data is dreary and beautiful, noisy and elegant. And it is immensely powerful.
If you can sift through the overwhelming amounts of raw information, and piece it all together, you can create something that delivers information easily and informatively. You can discover something that you didn’t know already or confirm something that you had a hunch about. And given all that, you can then do further things—send food, feed mouths. And at the heart of it all, there is data.
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.
Some days, life is blue skies and sunshine and harvesting beautiful produce with a crew of amazing folks. I love that my job with Boston Area Gleaners not only aligns with my values by working to address food waste and food insecurity, but also that it gives me an amazing opportunity to visit farms and connect with more farmers in the region. I've met some of the kindest farmers this summer, and I've had the chance to see some beautiful farms. The seasons are starting to change in New England, though. Summer may hang on for a tad longer, but fall is creeping in. The nights are cooling off, and the days are getting shorter. We started harvesting apples, and I've noticed that the bumble bees are starting to die off for the season.
I know there will be wonderful things this fall, and still so much to be grateful for, but I love the summer and I hate to see it go. Change is inevitable but still hard, and with so much constant upheaval in the world lately, I guess it was nice to be heads down and working to the point of exhaustion in the summer sun. Looking up again is...tiring.
I know it's a privilege to tune out from the news. And I also know that the work that we're doing is 'essential', and plays a major role in getting food to those in need, so I shouldn't devalue it as a simple distraction. But some days when I try to engage and stay aware of what's going on, the news is more exhausting than the farmwork.
Maybe I'm mourning a lot more than the end of the summer. But the long, long days of sunshine helped ease the overwhelm a bit, and I can see the days getting shorter. So I'm trying to hold on a bit, I guess, to the bees and the flowers and the sun. Maybe I can store it up like a battery to pull through the fall and winter, eh?
When I started working at BAG this summer, there was a stretch of time where I felt a little off-kilter. I have been farming since 2013, but last year I made an effort to get a remote desk job in preparation for a US roadtrip my husband and I planned to take this year (new departure date is now TBD). I spent 7 months in a job that didn't suit me, and I went an entire farming season without farming.
So when I jumped into this role, I knew that I knew what I was doing, but there was some dusting off that needed to happen in the archives of my brain. I work surrounded by brilliant, delightful, inquisitive people—my coworkers come from amazing backgrounds and fields of study, and our volunteers are similarly diverse and captivating. Do I always remember the answers to all of their questions? Haha, no, definitely not. I've been honest when I don't know or remember, and I've been so lucky to be in an environment where I can learn as much from the folks around me as I can hope to share with them.
Some days, though, I would have wavered if you asked if I was a farmer. Was I? What if I'd forgotten too much?
Then, one day, two of our apprentices saw a bird they couldn't identify. These are folks that ID trees professionally and know of more birds than I've ever heard of—they know their stuff. I am not a bird person. But one of them said to me "I don't think I need a bird person for this question, I think I need a farmer." And when I asked where they saw the bird, I suggested that it might be a Killdeer, a ground nesting bird that often lives in farm fields. They looked it up and I was right.
So, do I know it all? No. Does any farmer? No. But am I a farmer? Heck. Yes. And I am so glad. I'm so grateful to be doing work that I care deeply about, with kind and incredible people, in such a beautiful place. I hope that wherever you are, you have days full of blue skies and sunshine, and that we can all help each other float on together as the seasons change and the world keeps spinning. Life isn't exactly straightforward these days, but I'm hoping to make the most of it, and excited for BAG to be a big part of that.
By Alex Browning
Amidst the heat of midsummer, tomatoes are now in season—and what better recipe than gazpacho for those nights when you cannot imagine turning on an appliance in your kitchen!
3 - 4 ripe tomatoes, quartered
1 onion peeled and quartered
3 - 5 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 onion finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
2 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 - 2 cucumbers, finely chopped
1 - 2 tsp Cholula Hot Sauce
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Place tomatoes, quartered onions and garlic in a blender and puree. Add Cholula, vinegar, oil, salt and pepper and mix throughly.
Combine puree with chopped vegetables and adjust seasoning as needed.
Serve chilled with a crusty bread.
What is a brassica? Frequent gleaners will know that many familiar vegetables belong to the brassica genus, including cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower, plus some more unexpected characters, like radishes and arugula.
With so many examples of tasty and widely available vegetables in the brassica family, it's safe to say that most of us have one brassica or another in our fridges at any given time. These vegetables are also commonly grown on New England farms, where cool spring and autumn weather allow these hardy plants to thrive for much of the year.
When Boston Area Gleaners teams head to the fields to rescue surplus crops each season, the odds are good that if we're gleaning a vegetable, it's a brassica! Cabbage, kale, and collards are three crops that grow prolifically on our partner farms and are popular among the food pantries we work with, too.
But alas, with abundance comes boredom, at least some of the time. What to do with all the cabbage, kale, and, that eternal challenge, kohlrabi that comes through your kitchen? This recipe for Brassica Fritters lets you work with what you've got in your fridge, giving you a creative way to use up odds and ends like kohlrabi and broccoli stems, with added warmth and spice from cumin and paprika. Think of it as a highly non-traditional Gleaner Latke, if you will. Explore the depths of your fridge and discover new ways to enjoy the many members of the brassica family!
adapted from Martha Rose Shulman in NYTimes Cooking
Most of you know that my introduction to BAG comes through my long-time volunteer role at the Lexington Food Pantry. Since joining the team at BAG, I have been in the unique position of following gleaned vegetables from the field all the way to the grocery bags of our clients. Our pantry has always operated on an open shopping model which gives us the opportunity to spend time with, and get to know our clients.
We serve a diverse group – young families, single Moms, single Dads, older couples. One of the joys of doing this work is getting to know members of my community.
COVID has changed the world and our lives in ways that are too many to list. At the Lexington Food Pantry it has required us to completely change how we operate. In mid-March we switched from our traditional open model to one that uses on-line ordering with pick-up and delivery options.
We never see our clients anymore. I miss that. I miss hearing about their kids, their jobs, their lives. We have new clients I have never met. Our Saturday mornings have become about assembling bags of groceries as quickly as we can. We still try to add a personal touch for the clients we know – a favorite cereal for the kids, or jalapeños for the family that loves spicy foods, but mostly it’s just chaos. I understand why it has to be that way right now, but the joy is missing.
Last week, in the middle of the chaos, my son (who volunteers with me) handed me a cheerful bright green envelope. It was a thank you note from one of our clients – a wonderful connection to the people I miss and just like that, a reminder of the joy.
By Usha Thakrar
Stay-at-home advisories. Mandatory face coverings. Physical distancing...or is it social distancing? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday...or is it Blur-sday? One day lumbers into the next and the collective mood is grim at best. This is our current reality, which we willingly adopt for the good of our communities.
In the midst of everything, if you're anything like us at Boston Area Gleaners, you could use a new, zesty, flavorful salad in your life. There's nothing like citrus, vinegar, mustard, and (gasp) anchovies to wake up your sleepy, stressed, and perhaps overly-sugared taste buds.
This recipe comes from Vinaigrette, a favorite restaurant in sunny Santa Fe. Hopefully it will bring some refreshing desert energy into your kitchen. Use it to make a kale Caesar salad or to dress up and tenderize any other sturdy leafy greens currently in your fridge. And in the spirit of the times, feel free to make substitutions as needed: use apple cider vinegar instead of Champagne, onions instead of shallots, and whatever mustard and hard cheese you have around.
ZINGY LEMON ANCHOVY VINAIGRETTE
Dresses six to eight salads of kale or other cruciferous greens
Juice of 2 1/2 lemons
12 anchovy fillets packed in oil, reserve some oil
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon creamy Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon water
1 heaping tablespoon shallots, finely diced
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, or more if needed
Freshly grated Parmesan, to taste
Place all ingredients except the shallots in a blender; blend until you have a creamy but still liquid emulsification.
Add shallots and pulse briefly, just to incorporate.
Toss vinaigrette with shredded kale.
Grate Parmesan over the salad.
We are a quarter of the way through a year where the pace of change in the world has exceeded anything most of us have ever experienced. I don’t know about you but I have been finding the emotional peaks and valleys a bit disorientating at times. The news cycle continues chugging along, bringing with it emotionally laden stories of a world fiercely battling an invisible killer. At the same time we’ve seen amazing displays of humanity, kindness and selflessness.
We are distanced physically, each navigating our own smaller world of learning to cook ourselves three meals a day, to transform our living rooms into offices and classrooms, to cohabitate with little personal space and time to ourselves, host virtual game nights and to generally stay afloat through a period of great upheaval.
I once listened to a podcast where Boston-based psychiatrist, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, was making the case that stress hormones actually help us in that they “give us the energy to cope with extreme situations.” He said the problem comes when we are unable to use this energy to take action. This is exactly the dilemma we are faced with right now. So many of us desperately want to help but there isn’t all that much that can be done while still adhering to CDC guidelines intended to slow the spread of COVID.
That being said, the sun continues to rise everyday and the world keeps turning. If you’re reading this, it means you have survived 100% the challenges you have faced in life and in the COVID era. And we are so glad you are here. The most important thing you can do right now is to take care of yourself.... physically, mentally, emotionally & spiritually. That act alone is a gift to yourself and the world.
We tend to think of uncertainty in a negative light. While it does pose many challenges; if the future is uncertain, it also means there is space for us to exert our influence. This is an argument that author Rebecca Solnit has spent a good deal of her career articulating. Her comments on the current state of the world have helped me to reframe this crisis and the role I wish to play in it.
All this goes to say that the road ahead of us is long. And while we are limited in what we can do right this minute, there will be much for us to do in the future. So the best thing we can do right now is follow the guidelines intended to slow the spread of COVID and take care of ourselves so that we have the strength and energy to influence how we rebuild from this tragedy. This is our job right now and although it may not feel like much its importance cannot be understated.
Here are a few things that have been helping me during this time…..
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities- Rebecca Solnit
Braiding Sweetgrass- Robin Wall Kimmerer
We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For- Alice Walker
Sacred Economics- Charles Eisenstein
Comment other book suggestions below! We'd love to hear what you all are reading to stay sane and hopeful.
I want you to know that we are working on crafting policies and procedures that will allow us to continue our gleaning activities safely this summer. So *fingers crossed* that will also be an option of a tangible activity you can partake in in a few months time. I also want you to know that while we are busy responding to the current crisis, we think of you all so often! Please reach out and let us know if you need anything, we will find a way.
Sending all our love & virtual hugs. See you soon.
P.s. don't forget to comment book recommendations and other wellness tips below so we can all benefit from each others wisdom.
This recipe comes from BAG's Executive Director, Usha Thakrar. Usha is an avid (and talented) cook and baker, whose creations frequently supplement staff meals and put a little more pep in their step at the end of a long day of gleaning. In this recipe from last September, Usha shares a tasty, nourishing ratatouille perfect for using up abundant summer veggies. Whether you have eggplant, peppers, and summer squash stashed in your freezer from last season, or whether you're just dreaming of next September's savory creations, enjoy this recipe in the spirit of summer!
Call it “Guilt Alleviating Ratatouille”
There was a big corn glean today and I had decided not to go as I had worked both days over the weekend. But I felt guilty so I decided to cook and bring the food to the team. My fridge was full of the veggies from my CSA (all gleaned)…
1 leek (chopped)
2 bell peppers (cubed)
1 large (or 2 small) eggplant (cubed)
1 zucchini (or summer squash) - (cubed)
2 - 3 tomatoes (chopped)
4 - 5 cloves of garlic (minced)
Red or white wine
Tomato sauce (one can)
1 -2 bay leaves
Heaping teaspoons of basil and oregano
Pinch of rosemary
Heat the oil. Add the garlic, bay leaf and leek. Sauté until soft.
Add the eggplant, wine, herbs, salt, pepper and 1/3 of the can of tomato sauce. Cook for about 10 minutes (until eggplant is tender).
Add zucchini and peppers and another 1/3 of the tomato sauce. Cook for another 10 minutes and add tomatoes and the rest of the tomato sauce.
Cook until veggies are tender (or slightly crisp if you prefer).
Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with rice or a crusty bread.
Our Volunteer Potluck on February 15th was a blast. We had the best time celebrating our 2019 season in style...feather boas and funny hats, to be precise!
We acknowledged our longtime Executive Director, Duck Caldwell, who steps into her new consulting role at BAG after many years of leadership. We officially welcomed Usha Thakrar, our new permanent ED, who joined us in July 2019 and has plunged into life as a gleaner with tremendous enthusiasm. And we recognized the commitment of our volunteers, whose hard work made it possible for us to glean well over 900,000 over the course of the season.
Most importantly, though, we ate, drank, and laughed together, sharing an impressive potluck spread and some of Usha's trademark orange pineapple punch.
Enjoy these photos of this fabulous night, captured by the amazing Bob Durling Photography! And if you missed out on the festivities, don't worry: as winter flies by, our summer potluck will be here before we know it.
Boston Area Gleaners
91 Martin Street
Acton, MA 01720