Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Human Ecological Perspective

Gleaning has traditionally been an agreement between food producers and community members, providing special rights to those willing to gather food that would otherwise go to waste. Some farmers used to leave the four corners of their fields unharvested, and community members could then glean as needed. Modern day food systems have fewer people producing most of the available food, posing a logistical obstacle for such free-form gleaning. Consumers are generally disconnected from their farmers and food production systems. The coordination component is therefore required for modern gleaning to successfully recover food and distribute it to individuals experiencing low income or food insecurity.

The Gleaners, Jean-Fran├žois Millet (1857)
 Having gone from the innocent act of picking blueberries on top of Blue Hill mountain as a child, to participating in Freeganism, as an “exhibition of the injustice of food waste” in Germany (listen to Tristram Stuart’s TED talk), to then researching supermarket quality managers’ perspectives on food waste for my Thesis last year, what I bring to the act of gleaning is a combination of many interests, and a good nose for networking needs. I am inspired by students that dumpster-dive to save money while paying college tuition, as much as by the “evil” food businesses committed to reducing the negative environmental impact of food waste in landfills, the non-profit organizations that strive to counter the injustice of abundant food being restricted from people who need it, and many others who just want to make a difference, get to know new people, and have fun. Gleaning is a way of making sense of the world and is one way to support access to healthy food for all.

Local gleaning is a necessary social act of rootedness that I can only make sense of through my human ecological antenna. Gleaning has me balancing hand in hand my natural and social surroundings and restores what I consider to be a lost part of our human ecological nature. It has the potential to bridge the relational gap that has grown between us as producers and us as consumers. I do not see gleaning as the single solution to the food access challenges we face, but I see it as a powerful resource. Food waste recovery is an important sustainable outcome of gleaning, but it is not the only outcome. The cultural implication of the act of gleaning is that it can play a role in slowly restoring the true value of food. Whether it is collecting tons of apples left hanging on road-side trees, bushels of berries fallen from bushes, carrots lying in fields in Guatemala, or salad greens in Maine hoop-houses, the collective act of gleaning empowers us to recognize the essential value of food and its potential to restore our relationship to nature, to each other, and to ourselves.

We need to measure what we glean.

Global gleaning is a powerful call to action to address the local implications of international food waste streams. This past February, Tristram Stuart, founder of Feeding the 5000 and author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin, 2009), addressed the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) in Kenya, where 500 Ministers, diplomats and senior officials from around the world dined with food that would otherwise have gone to waste or been fed to animals (see Feeding the 5000). Kenya’s farmers are made to waste 40% of what they produce, due to the market’s restrictions on cosmetic standards tailored by our quality demands. Due to market expectations, this food is turned down by western retailers, but the food never reaches people who need it even within the same country it is produced. Transporting it, and even harvesting it, may exceed its value in local markets.

Again, we see this same challenge in the United States, where plenty of fresh produce is going to waste. Because fruits and vegetables are not one of the primary commodity crops subsidized by the government, like corn, soy, wheat or rice, vegetable farmers can’t afford to deliver their product to certain towns, and consumers have a hard time reaching their nearest fully stocked grocery store. In contrast, junk food is readily available because it is usually made from corn, soy and wheat products, therefore highly subsidized, and because it has a long shelf life. Vegetables and fruit are neglected items in the US food system.

Feeding the 5000 - Peas from Kenyan farmers

Gleaning can bring back common sense. Peas rejected for being too small, as seen in the picture above, can find their place in the world again.

It does depend on us.

I worked at a fruit and vegetable retail store in Barcelona for a year, promoting an alternative form of a buying club, where everything was managed for consumers, and people were able to choose items in an open room filled with all kinds of produce. We only asked they commit to coming in once a week. This was expected to help predict the amount of food we would need to order each week and supposedly reduce loss or prevent food waste. Another model that builds on reliability and waste prevention is the CSA model (Community Supported Agriculture), where consumers pay in advance and get a reduced price for a bag-full of in-season produce delivered every week. While CSAs can be an excellent option for producers and consumers, many people desire more choice each week when deciding what they do and do not want to eat. The argument, for which the jury is still out, is whether this is innate, as hunter gatherers to tend to pick the best of what is available, or whether this is learned in a society where abundance has driven us silly, and consumerism and convenience have transformed our sense of what is real.

At the organic produce shop in Barcelona, supposedly well-intentioned alternative consumers, attracted by the fairly low organic prices, would come in every day and complain if there wasn’t any of this, or any of that. Inevitably at the end of the day, at the bottom of the wooden boxes, lay a carrot with a slit, an apple with a bruise, a banana with a brown spot, a lettuce with a broken leaf, an orange with a spec. And worse yet, there were boxes of peas going moldy.

We can return to a conscious state of being where apples with bruises are the best for smoothies and perfect shinny ones are considered overly fussy, and where we all pitch in to collect and share food that would otherwise go to waste. We may not be able to change the weather today, but considering the rain, we might want to make more of an effort to fix our broken tent poles, and invite others to come inside to share the bounty of our food system.

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