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Addressing Food Waste in SE Alberta November 2, 2010

Posted by gfsa in Community Stories, Countdown to P2S.

Recently Medicine Hat hosted an open community meeting to discuss “Gleaning” as a local food system project. As a member of Medicine Hat’s Community Food Connections I was made aware of the project and the promise to address hunger; however, since I am much more a food system ally than a grassroots farm girl (having very little actual food production experience), I had to admit that I had no idea what “gleaning” was. I imagined that it was a brand new technique; some up and coming hunger solution. As it turns out gleaning is an old concept….as in Biblically old. Gleaning is the traditional Biblical practice of gathering crops that would otherwise be left in the fields to rot or be ploughed under after harvest. Today, gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested in an attempt to address food waste. When crops do not meet top grade quality (i.e. are bigger, smaller or different shape than typically sold to food distributors) and are seen as unmarketable, they are left to rot or be ploughed under, despite being completely edible.

With my introduction to gleaning, I found that gleaning charities around North America are accessing the “wasted” food and redistributing it in an attempt to address hunger. It is based on the supposition that the world produces enough food to feed every person (http://www.endhunger.org/) and is insufficient in distribution and management of surplus.

How it works is that surplus vegetables (often potatoes, beans and corn in SE Alberta) are harvested by volunteers, dehydrated and packaged to be redistributed as a low cost food option to some local food banks and charities. The food is often transported overseas to provide international hunger relief, as with the Prairie Gleaners in Alberta (http://www.prairiegleaners.com/).

In the food security context, gleaning provides the prospect of safe, nutritionally adequate foods to those in need, addressing poverty and environmental waste; however, the food may not meet regular food aesthetic standards and as such may not be personally acceptable.  Unfortunately, this is the roadblock to using gleaned foods in the local system (i.e. the Medicine Hat Food Bank) as it seems that most service users are not interested in gleaned produce; rather, all people want equitable access to the same quality of product.

Despite the recent dialogue in SE Alberta to use gleaned foods to address local hunger issues, this will not occur at this time; however, for me, several important community implications came from the discussion. The following are some of the lessons I took from my introduction to gleaning.

  • The entire community does not have equitable access to quality produce. One way that individuals can address this is to plant a “sharing row” in their own gardens to be shared with local community kitchens, food banks, community programs etc.
  • The community has an abundance of edible food. Allowing for some flexibility in aesthetic standards could provide most people in the community with healthy, sustainable options
  • Local farms support local initiatives. Many of the local farms and producers have opened their fields for gleaning. While they are protective not to saturate their market with “give away” product, they continue to offer surplus to community initiatives.
  • There is a great quantity of food waste. Most of us can consume less of the world’s resources than we now use. We can put effort into being less wasteful and more mindful about our food consumption.
  • We can act locally to support globally. In volunteering time to a local gleaning organization (manpower being the largest issue) you can help ensure that food “waste” is used to provide international relief.

For more information about gleaning in Alberta, please contact the Prairie Gleaners Society.

Submitted by: Jessica Nixon, Medicine Hat, Alberta



1. susan roberts - November 2, 2010

Thanks Jessica..I think your lessons learned are key..gleaning is short term not the fix. Cheers Susan

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