National Consumers League

Lessons from Palm Beach: Let’s all get out and glean!

The Bible is replete with calls for it, our glut of food in America calls for it, and yet few of us do it. I’m not talking about praying! I’m referring to the term “gleaning.” NCL has an active campaign to reduce food waste, since Americans toss out 40 percent of the food we produce. That takes a huge toll on our farmers—who work so hard to grow our crops—and on the environment, when wasted food stuffs landfills, and it leaves the 60 million food-insecure families in America behind, when we could be feeding millions more.

But in Belle Glade, FL, it turns out, they are heeding the call to glean. Thousands of people from November through July get up at the crack of dawn and drive to local fields to package up unused crops—butternut squash, bok choy, cabbage, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, green beans—and ensure they get to the distribution centers at the local food banks. According to Susan Salisbury, who wrote about the cleaning efforts for the Palm Beach Post, an estimated 20 percent of crops never make it to our tables. It’s either “ugly” or doesn’t meet retailers’ standards. Another 20 percent is thrown away at home or in restaurants, something the National Consumers League has worked to reduce.

Amidst a lot of abundance and wealth, there is another side of Palm Beach County. If you drive off the main roads you see it, but few of us make those detours. It turns out that 200,000 people in the county are food insecure, according to the head of the Palm Beach County Food Bank.

In fact, 90 percent of the crops that are gleaned come from Palm Beach County, with up to 3,000 volunteers working closely with growers. Last year they recovered 497,000 pounds of produce. A whopping 3.7 million pounds, statewide, has been saved. Kids come with their parents to participate in gathering produce. What a great lesson for them.

I was surprised to learn that this food recovery program may be the only one of its kind in the nation. Kudos to the farmers who work with the community to ensure this donated food—millions of pounds of it—gets to those in need. This program should go national.

And by the way, this notion that I hear so often that you can’t give food away because if people get sick, you’ll get sued, is a red herring! Ever heard of the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act? It’s the federal law that protects those who donate, recover, and distribute excess food from fear of lawsuits.

Three hours later, volunteers fill up bins that provide food to the many in Palm Beach County who don’t have enough to feed their families. This is the side of America that I love. Forget military parades— let’s get Americans out gleaning fields across the country. Palm Beach County has taught us how.