News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in The Weekly Packet, August 28, 2014
Gleaning Initiative connects farm produce with people in need

by Ross Gallagher

Gleaning, the act of collecting quality food that would otherwise go to waste, is proving an effective means of establishing a more sustainable food system in Hancock County. Led by East Blue Hill resident Hannah Semler, the Gleaning Initiative, a collaborative project supported by Healthy Acadia and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, has salvaged and redistributed thousands of pounds of locally grown food since Semler began her work in May 2013.

The idea is simple. Each year, farms grow more food than they can harvest. The demands of the market, and the need to reuse limited agricultural space as efficiently as possible, often renders comprehensive harvest efforts impractical for the farmers themselves. The resulting surplus very often goes to waste. For the past year and a quarter, Semler has focused efforts of the Gleaning Initiative on ensuring that this surplus, all of which is top quality organic produce, finds its way to food pantries and into the homes of people who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

The practice of gleaning, which allows the food to become more affordable and subsequently more accessible to a broader spectrum of consumers, often carries with it an inherent education in food sustainability. Not simply a service for families in need, Semler emphasizes, gleaning offers insight into sustainable food practices at all stages of the process, from growing to harvesting to marketing to consuming, to community members of all kinds. Everyone could stand to be better educated about local food systems, suggests Semler, and instead of teaching with the more traditional ‘we have the knowledge’ approach, a method that implies an unwanted hierarchy, her Hancock County-wide gleaning effort invites people to get involved at all levels of the process and teach themselves about food sustainability.

Using volunteer labor composed of community members, local students, and master gardeners undergoing coursework at UMaine’s Coop Extension, Semler’s initiative has allowed the farmers to connect with members of the communities they serve while giving the volunteers the opportunity to understand where their food comes from and how it is grown. Each farm makes its own choice to get involved, after which those farmers decide exactly what their terms will be. For some whom education is a priority, the opportunity to teach high-school volunteer gleaners about their farming practices is the most important, while for others the opportunity to gain visibility and recognition as the ones who feed the people, a role farmers have always fulfilled within their communities that, with the onset of intermediaries such as supermarkets, has become all the more obscured, is the top priority. Still others are simply glad to see their excess produce being put to good use.

While the Gleaning Initiative’s efforts contribute to the environmental sustainability of the farm, by making use of otherwise wasted food, and its financial stability, by paying the farmers adequately for the produce gleaned from their farm, the most important contribution, according to Semler, is one of social sustainability.

“This is the value added,” she explains. “We harvest the food, sort it, transport it, and market it. But, in the process, we’re developing a volunteer network that connects the community members with their local farms and serves as a safety net for the farmers.” When Bill Raiten and Elena Bourakovsky of Backstage Farm in Blue Hill had to tend to personal matters that took them away from their farming duties for a time, the Gleaning Initiative was able to recruit a team of volunteers who managed to save a quarter of their garden from becoming overgrown with weeds.

In addition to her work connecting farmers with their communities and excess produce with food pantries, Semler has been instrumental in developing a satellite project, the Magic Food Bus, that distributes salvaged food and donates books to more remote parts of the peninsula area. The bus allows more community members to gain access to gleaned food while also providing summer reading opportunities for children who remain at home for the summer. Support for the Magic Food Bus has been offered by several local and regional businesses, among them Healthy Peninsula, Healthy Acadia, Farm Drop, the Tree of Life, Melody Kane Ceramics, ICEC Stonington, and Lucy’s Granola. A comprehensive list of the stops made by the bus are listed on the Healthy Peninsula website at healthypeninsula.org.

Since joining Healthy Acadia as its first Gleaning Coordinator after the organization received a Community Development Block Grant from the City of Ellsworth in 2013 to start the first Gleaning Initiative in Hancock County, Semler has involved over 70 volunteers in the effort and redistributed over 35,000 pounds of food. While celebrating this achievement, she acknowledges that more must be done.

“Forty percent of food in the U.S. is wasted from farm to fork,” she said. According to Dana Gunders of the National Research Defense Council, each year, that percentage of food waste equates to losing about $165 billion, not to mention the uneaten food that ends up in landfills and accounts, as it rots, for a large portion of U.S. methane gas emissions. The Gleaning Initiative serves to combat these national issues at the community level, affirming faith in the ability of small, local movements to effect change on a national, and even international, scale. To get involved in the Gleaning Initiative, e-mail Semler at hannah@healthyacadia.org. More information about the Initiative is available at healthyacadia.org/initiatives/food_for_all.html.