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Gleaning the fields: Group encourages salvaging fresh, unused food for hunger relief

Volunteers Carrie LaFontaine, right, and Wally Littlefield pick out groceries gleaned from area grocery stores Tuesday, July 18, 2017, for customers of the Emergency Food Pantry in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 4
Produce gleaned from area grocery stores waits Tuesday, July 18, 2017, for customers of the Emergency Food Pantry in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 4
Jeff Askew of Great Plains Food Bank loads groceries gleaned from Hornbachers for delivery to shelters Friday, July 14, 2017, in Moorhead. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor3 / 4
The Oakes Boy Scout Troop #147 and the Fullerton Achievers 4-H group help harvest crops last summer at a farm in Fullerton, N.D. Photo courtesy of Nancy Carriveau.4 / 4

FARGO — Each year, about 27 percent of all food produced in the U.S. never makes it to the dinner table. Simultaneously, thousands of people across North Dakota and western Minnesota struggle with hunger, according to the Great Plains Food Bank.

To combat the issues of food waste and food insecurity, an old idea with a new name has been proposed by the Cass Clay Food Commission: gleaning.

Gleaning is the process of collecting surplus food that would otherwise go to waste from farms and places of sale, such as grocery stores and food markets, and redistributing it to feed the hungry.

Abby Gold, an associate professor of public health at North Dakota State University, said the commission expects to soon distribute an informational packet about gleaning to leaders in Cass and Clay counties. The packet will explain how local jurisdictions can promote gleaning through different programs, such as tax incentives for farmers and businesses that donate food.

Currently, no jurisdictions in the area have laws that encourage gleaning. However, some local organizations have taken the practice into their own hands.

The Great Plains Food Bank, the largest hunger-relief organization in North Dakota, is one of them.

Nancy Carriveau, the food resource manager for Great Plains, said the organization collects food from growers, manufacturers and grocery stores across North Dakota and redistributes it to 215 organizations such as food pantries, homeless shelters and soup kitchens throughout the state.

Several growers in the region are major donors to Great Plains. At the top of the list are Dan and Beatrice Faust of Valley City, N.D. The couple donated 171,000 pounds, or almost five semi loads, of squash, corn and other produce in 2016. Their donations provided 143,074 meals.

Dan Faust said he began donating eight years ago after hearing that a high demand for food was expected that year. Since then, he's planted extra acres of vegetables to donate each year.

"I'm 82 years old, but I intend to keep going," he said, adding that he's donated a total of 485,505 pounds of produce so far.

Carriveau said that among grocery stores, Hornbacher's is one of the food bank's biggest donors. Five days a week, a food bank truck stops at different Hornbacher's locations to collect surplus food.

Whether gathering food from grocery stores or growers, Carriveau said, volunteers are a crucial part of the gleaning process.

With each donation from growers comes the need for volunteer gleaners willing to travel to the farm or garden to help harvest the crop. "That's the hardest part of the whole thing, to find people," Faust said.

Last year, 200 Valley City State University freshmen helped to harvest the produce at the Fausts' farm. This year, Faust is trying to raise funds for planting, tending and harvesting, in hopes of paying some of the people who help with the process.

Gold said volunteers are one reason it's difficult to get a lot of businesses and growers to partake in gleaning. Many volunteers are needed for harvesting and packaging, oftentimes more than are available, and farmers could be liable if someone was hurt on their land. Also, food pantries sometimes don't have refrigerator space for perishable items.

"Perishability is definitely a concern we're always thinking of," Carriveau said.

Besides Great Plains, several smaller local organizations, such as Growing Together Community Gardens in Fargo, partake in gleaning. Quite a few local farmers pack up excess food and deliver it to a nearby food shelf themselves, Gold said.

"People want to help," Carriveau said. "We have growers interested in growing food just to donate."