Trees and fruits of all kinds stretch down the vista of a grassy track. Cobnuts, pears and raspberries are all on display. A group of about thirty volunteers and our special guest for the day, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, are following Tom Maynard through his beautiful farm in Sussex, towards the orchards of apples and plums where their day’s work will begin. Nestled in the branches of the trees is a little part of the answer to the UK’s food poverty. Until now, it has been overlooked.

Tom explains to us that in these branches, literally tonnes of fruit is going to waste. This is mainly because they’ve had a bumper crop this year, and there’s been a glut of apples and plums on the market, so the price has crashed. It’s not cost-effective to harvest them. The incentive is to overproduce, so that in lean years they can make ends meet, particularly for farms bound by supermarket contracts to supply a certain quantity of food or suffer the consequences of being de-listed. Last year, Tom had less than 20% of the apples and plums they have this year.

Over the past year, helping to set up the Gleaning Network nationally, I’ve encountered many similar stories, such as the farmer I encountered, who claimed he had 40% of his crop had been out-graded due to supermarket cosmetic standards. All the small or wonky vegetables were left in the field to rot.

We’ve come to Tom’s farm to save the produce from going to waste, as part of a growing movement which aims to tackle this problem. Gleaning is both very new to the UK, and very old. Gleaning used to be common practice across Europe in the middle ages. Land owners would invite the poor onto their land to gather up whatever had been left unharvested. Fast forward to a period of austerity and increasing reliance on food banks in 21st century Britain, where 5.8 million people live in deep poverty in the UK, with that figure rising. Food banks are struggling to keep up with demand. Fresh fruit and vegetables are in especially short supply, despite some boosts to stocks recently from increased donations from Asda, Tesco and other supermarkets. This is why there has never been a better time to revive gleaning.

The volunteers get going filling crate after crate with delicious fruits, liberally taste-testing along the way. The produce from such ‘gleaning days’ is loaded onto a van and sent to FareShare to redistribute to smaller homeless hostels and charities. The plums are delicious and there are more than we can possibly pick for FareShare. It’s confusing to see such abundance, at a time when we are told we live in a world of scarcity. One UN report estimated that farmers must produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed our swelling population, which is tipped to hit 9 billion. But in spite of these claims, food is actually plentiful – it’s just that globally, we are throwing an estimated 30% to 50% of our food away. WRAP estimates that in the UK, up to 25% of apples, 20% of onions and 13% of potatoes are wasted just due to grading, before they even get to the consumer.

The food waste hierarchy, a ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ ethos for food waste, shows that environmentally, our first priority should be to reduce food waste. The FAO estimates that every year, the production of food that is wasted generates 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases and uses up 1.4 billion hectares (or 28%) of the world’s agricultural land.

Hence, one of the key aims of the Gleaning Network is to shine a light on the immense food waste on farms, and to campaign for a relaxation of supermarket cosmetic standards, among other things.

The volunteers break for lunch, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall cooks us all a beautiful meal using some of the plums we’ve gleaned. As people mill around contentedly eating, we have a glimpse of a happier, alternative world where food isn’t wasted and is instead eaten, as it should be.

Plum & apple gleaning

The massive potential for gleaning in the UK is illustrated by the US, where extensive gleaning networks already exist. For example, the Society of St Andrews has saved more than 164 million pounds of food for America’s hungry since its inception in 1988. This food was ‘gleaned’ by over 400,000 volunteers from a network of over 900 growers.

Gleaning Network UK is sowing the seeds of such a movement in the UK. Over the past year, we’ve already gleaned approximately 30 tonnes of produce, and have set the record for the greatest amount of produce gleaned in the UK – 11,000 cauliflowers were gleaned in collaboration with Company Shop. Small steps compared to the US, but the movement is growing rapidly. We’re now launching regional gleaning hubs around Manchester, Cambridge, Brighton, Bristol, Kent and London.

As we load the two and a half tonnes of apples and plums into the van, and send it on its way to FareShare, the volunteers give a cheer in celebration of what is the first ever gleaning day for the Sussex hub. May there be many more!

If you’d like to volunteer as a gleaner, and join the Arable Spring, please do sign up to the Gleaning Network’s gleaning list, which means you’ll be the first to know when there’s a gleaning day coming up near you, or email if you have any questions.

Watch out for the episode of River Cottage on gleaning, due to be broadcast in November 2013!

Featured image by Steph French

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