The USDA estimates that 20 percent of domestically grown food is thrown away due to aesthetic imperfections or mechanical errors. Such waste is unimaginable to the nonprofits that answer calls from overly bountiful growers, gather extra produce and transport it to locals in need of a fresh bite to eat. This process is known as "gleaning."
"It's very rewarding and very real," says Patty Sherwood, Bounty Hunters coordinator at Petaluma Bounty. "I get to pick up the food and take it right to the source of people who need it the most." Petaluma Bounty is an independent nonprofit dedicated to helping citizens grow food and redistributing the surplus to low-income families and seniors. Currently in their fourth year of service, the organization has distributed more than 210,000 pounds of fresh produce. The nonprofit solicits volunteers and trains them to be "bounty hunters." These 20 volunteers are trained to harvest leftover food with a discriminating eye. Petaluma Bounty also receives plenty of donations.
"I picked up 67 pounds of zucchini today," Sherwood says proudly. In keeping with the nonprofit's deal with local agriculturalists, Sherwood scours the Petaluma farmers market for produce left unsold at the end of the evening. Farmers don't miss the unsold food, which would spoil by next week's market anyway. Petaluma Bounty often leaves the market with a pickup truck full of fresh produce and delivers it to seniors in need.
The Farm to Pantry nonprofit serves all of Sonoma County. Volunteers deliver the food they salvage to county food pantries, soup kitchens or shelters. Since its birth in 2008, Farm to Pantry has distributed over 27,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables headed for the dumpster. They have since initiated community canning events to preserve produce for food pantries. In addition to the altruism, Farm to Pantry unites the Sonoma County community in a common purpose.
Marin Organic provides a similar service in the neighboring county, but it primarily targets schools, along with several camps and underserved communities. With food gleaned from Marin Organic Farms, the nonprofit organization delivers food to more than half of all public and private schools in the county. Marin Organic even drives the produce to schools in biodiesel trucks. Each school's acceptance of gleaned produce offsets its overall food cost, and thus makes sound environmental and economic sense. The Marin Agricultural Trust also has a call out for gleaning help.
With a focus on educating teen volunteers, Ceres Community Project uses gleaned food to prepare meals for Sonoma County residents battling life-threatening illnesses. This healthy and affordable alternative teaches youth about sustainable eating habits while nourishing those who need it most.
Other gleaning projects at www.igrowsonoma.org/resources.