Gleaning: ‘Simple, elegant solution’ to Maine’s complicated hunger problem

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BRUNSWICK — It’s a massive problem, but one solution starts with a simple text: “Can we come glean at 9 a.m. on Wednesday?”

That’s the typical message that Shannon McCabe, a senior at Bowdoin College, texts to Nate Drummond, co-owner of Bowdoinham’s Six River Farm.

Every week since mid-June, Drummond has replied with a simple “yes.”

“Gleaning” isn’t a code word; it’s a term that dates as far back as biblical times to describe the practice of redirecting a farm’s surplus or unmarketable crop to places and people where it won’t go to waste.

This summer, in partnership with the Merrymeeting Food Council and with funding from a Bowdoin College fellowship, McCabe is spearheading a gleaning project that connects surplus food with food pantries and low-income housing.

In the last two months, volunteers have gleaned more than 3,200 pounds of vegetables from Six River Farm and the Bath Farmers Market. These are crops that would otherwise go to waste, and are for people who don’t usually have access to healthy food – fresh, local food, like chard, tomatoes, scallions and lettuce.

This was the bounty that McCabe and five volunteers gleaned from Drummond’s farm on an overcast Wednesday morning last week.

“It wouldn’t market, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t perfectly good to eat,” Rebecca McConnaughey, a volunteer and master gardener, said while holding a bushel of lettuce so big and beautiful that it resembled a bridal bouquet.

She placed the lettuce in a cardboard box, which at the end of the morning’s glean would be dropped off by a volunteer at one of the partnering organizations.

McCabe is the link that connects these moving pieces, and her efforts have earned her the title of “ultimate coordinator” from at least one of her early morning volunteers.

But in addition to people, McCabe, who studies environmental studies and sociology, wants to coordinate the solutions to much larger issues that adversely affect Maine: the reduction of food waste on small farms and the problem of Maine’s rising population of food insecure individuals.

“It’s a simple, elegant solution,” McCabe said of the new gleaning project.

A statewide issue

Her attitude sheds a good-humored and optimistic light on a dire reality in Maine, a state where more than 15 percent of the population is categorized as food insecure – the 12th highest percentage in the country and the highest in New England.

In Maine, 202,910 people are food insecure, according to 2014 data provided by the Feeding America map on the Good Shepard Food bank website.

This means, under the USDA’s definition of food insecurity, that 15.3 percent of the statewide population lives in “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

When you consider Maine’s large quantity of farmed land – which 2012 census data records as just less than 1.5 million acres, nearly three times that of neighboring Massachusetts – Mainers struggle to access enough food is ironic.

The irony is compounded by the fact that food-insecure families are the less likely to have access to fresh, local food, which is often more expensive, perishable and, in some cases, less filling than its processed counterparts, according to Ethan Minton, director of Brunswick’s Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program.

Not only is locally sourced food more nutritious, it also supports the local food economy; those living with hunger have less economic freedom and can’t always afford to support local food.

“The root of hunger is lack of income and economic injustice,” Jim Hanna, director of the Cumberland County Food Security Council, said Monday. Consequently, he said, singling out a specific reason for Maine’s acute insecurity is difficult because it is tied into larger economic forces.

However, Hanna suggested that Maine might be particularly worse off for what he described as Gov. Paul LePage’s administration’s “punishing efforts” to limit social welfare programs like Maine’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Not only do these programs provide low-income Mainers with food, he said, but they are beginning to increase their efforts to provide healthy, local food, now that 57 farms and farm stands around the state accept SNAP benefits, along with about three dozen farmers’ markets.

Hanna also identified Maine’s rural nature as something that isolates Mainers from their food sources, where the availability of fresh food may not exist for miles.

Not that Mainers who live in cities necessarily have it any easier: Sandy Galbraith, a spokeswoman for Maine Food Strategy, echoed Hanna and said the cost of living in cities, low wages, and similar economic stresses can lead a person to choose a cheaper, processed option over something fresh at the grocery store.

Food insecurity can also be bad for all of Maine, not just those living in hunger. Gibreath and Hanna emphasized that food-insecure individuals are less able to participate in the local food economy, which not only limits their own nutritional and economic freedom, but reduces the support of a crucial Maine economy whose members are already financially challenged.

“It’s a specific challenge to provide food at an achievable price point and have farmers be able to live off their enterprise,” Nate Drummond of Six River Farms said.

Maine Food Strategy released a report Aug. 9 acknowledging Census data that shows “the numbers of new farmers in the state had increased … but the average net income for producers has remained at approximately $20,000 for the last 10 years.”

The figure is contained in a 36-page report that identifies explicit goals and priorities aimed at improving Maine’s overall food system, from strengthening small producers to getting food into the hands of those who most desperately need it.

There are many moving parts, and the report argues that coordination and working together might be the key. Hanna echoed this strategy: “We can organize (the whole community) better,” he said. “We can take better care of each other.”

Which is why gleaners matter.

‘Finite resources’

Six River Farm has 17 acres of land and 12 people to farm it; Drummond, who co-manages the farm with his wife, Gabrielle Gosselin, said labor is his biggest expense.

While donating to food pantries is important to Six River – in the past, they have even planted rows of carrots specifically for donating to places like the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program – Drummond can’t always spare the time or the people to harvest, wash, and distribute donated food.

But if a third party can take care of the extra work, Drummond said it benefits both the farm and the community. He said he can only spare the gleaners about 10 minutes to show them where to pick, but from there, they take care of the rest.

Gleaning is also a way that the farm can reduce the amount of food waste that is built into the cost of farming due to uncontrollable factors such as the weather, quantity and quality of output, and market prices.

“It’s not necessarily going into a landfill,” Drummond said of unharvested or unmarketable vegetables, which can by composted or fed to the farm’s animals, “but it isn’t ending up on someone’s dinner plate.”

Minton is one of the people who makes sure that Drummond’s food ultimately gets to a dinner plate. As of Tuesday, Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program’s pantry and dining room had received 2,310 pounds of vegetables from the gleaners.

“Everybody (working on this issue) is faced with finite resources, both financial and human,” Minton said, echoing Drummond.”How do we prioritize at the core of our mission and how do we help others?”

Hanna was quick to caution that food security is a complex issue and gleaning is not a silver bullet.

But cast against a somber reality, it’s hard not to see the program as refreshingly logical, as something that promotes the important ethical and strategic model discussed in the Food Strategy report.

McCabe has already secured a grant through Bowdoin College that lets her continue her work throughout the academic year.

She said wants to find more ways to make it grow.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Edited Aug. 16, 2016, to clarify the number of farms, farm stands and farmers’ markets that accept SNAP.

Rebecca McConnaughey, a volunteer gleaner, picks a head of lettuce that Nate Drummond of Six River Farm has flagged for gleaning.

Shannon McCabe with volunteers from the Merrymeeting Council gleaning project at Bowdoinham’s Six River Farm. Through a Bowdoin College-funded fellowship, McCabe is coordinating efforts to connect fresh, local food to food pantries in the great Portland area.

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  • Jason Coombs

    Hats off to Ms. McCabe! I’ve been a proponent of reducing town and city ” lawn” spaces, preferring they be used for food crops. Not only would it be healthier, it could be used to teach people how easy growing some extra food can be. It does not take large tracts of land to produce a good abundance of food. Careful planning, knowledge and some care of the crop can produce great results. Learn to can your produce and you can have access to year round healthy food. Nothing like going into a dark cellar to grab some carrots packed away in sand baskets in December that were harvested in your own garden!