Gleaning Fights Waste and Hunger

  • Since 1991 the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank has worked with area farms to pick excess food crops that might otherwise go to waste. Photo: Margaret Krauss

September 20, 2013

More food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single solid material. In 2011 alone, more than 36 million tons of food waste was generated, with only a fraction diverted for composting. Yet, millions of Americans went hungry last year. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is addressing food waste and hunger through gleaning—that is, picking excess crops on area farms.

While Lionel Greenawalt and his children pick an average of four hundred dozen ears of corn each morning on their farm, right now, they have more corn than they can sell.

“It was kinda rainy this summer season and we weren’t able to get into the field to plant every 5-7 days so what happens is we get a little bit of a span there that we’re stretched out and we have a lot of corn all comes together," Greenawalt says.

That’s where gleaning comes in.

Since 1991, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank has worked with area farms to pick excess food crops that might otherwise go to waste.

It’s a historic practice. So old, in fact, that the Old Testament commands farmers to leave the four corners of their fields unplowed so those in need can harvest for themselves. Lisa Scales, CEO of the food bank, says it’s important for people within a community to take care of one another.

"I think there’s a responsibility," Scales says. "We want to have thriving communities because thriving communities benefit our entire region." 

Scales says one of the keys to a healthy economy is to ensure that kids are educated and prepared to enter the workforce.

“And what keeps kids in seats and focused on learning is that their bellies are full, that they’re not hungry, that they’re not wondering where their next meal is coming from, that they’re able to focus on their studies," she says. "Hunger is an impediment to thriving communities." 

Greenawalt Farm is just one of 35 partnering farms that allows food bank volunteers to glean crops throughout the season.

Volunteers assist with picking—working their way through four rows of corn.

Kit Eagan is a hospitalist who took a year sabbatical to pursue non-medical interests. Moving left down the row next to her is Beth Gulyasy, who normally spends her days making ultrasounds of the heart.

"I wanted to see the farmers who feed us what they’re experience is. It’s amazing, I can’t believe what these people do to grow crops to feed all of us," Eagan says.

Jeralyn Beach is a produce specialist with the food bank. She’s sweating from spending the morning hauling 60-pound sacks of corn onto the food bank’s truck. She leans against its side as she talks with Lionel's son Jack Greenawalt about the next time she’ll come out to the farm.

The food bank’s gleaning program provides people like Candy Avery with fresh produce they couldn’t otherwise afford. Avery is one of those newer clients. At a pickup location, she waits in line with her grocery bags.

"My husband’s job is seasonal. I no longer work I’m on disability so a lot of money has stopped coming in and you're hungry and your stomach it hurts sometimes and you have to get out here and do what you have to do," Avery says. “When I go into Giant Eagle, more often than not I walk past, I settle for canned goods here and there, but the fresh produce is the big deal here.”

As debate about federal food assistance gets under way, part of the national conversation has probed the question of poverty. 

Scales says 375,000 people in the 11-county region served by the food bank are eligible for assistance, but only about a third of those people ask for public help.

“Over half of the people we serve each month are kids and seniors and so we serve a very vulnerable population…a third of families have a full-time wage earner or cobbling together one or two jobs and people are still having a tough time putting food on the table," she says. 

For Ethan, a five-year-old just starting kindergarten, this Saturday morning outing isn’t about food assistance or gleaning or combating poverty. It’s about his favorite things to do.

“We eat fruit!”