Bringing together neighbors, businesses, food and friends

This article was written by Marie Ann Petersen in the Spring 2023 issue of Take Root Magazine. You can also read the article on Substack.

Last summer, a friend talked about the Eugene Area Gleaners with enthusiasm. She loved it. She had a lot of fresh produce, fruit, and berries on hand, the rewards of gleaning. I didn’t understand what gleaning was, except for the literal definition, which is “to gather leftover grain or produce after a harvest.” This definition, though accurate, doesn’t tell the whole story. 

It is a very old tradition, which is still current and useful in many communities. The main purpose is getting food to those who need it while at the same time reducing food waste.

In Eugene/Springfield, we have the Eugene Area Gleaners, Other local gleaners include the Sweet Home gleaners and the Salem harvest gleaners. Though goals and actions are similar, each group is operated separately, as their own organization, and run entirely by volunteers. 

Last year, Eugene gleaners collected and distributed 17 tons of produce. In addition to produce, many breads and baked goods are donated as well. 

In a nutshell, the group describes themselves as “a group of volunteers working to bridge the gap between growers with surplus food and hungry families. We glean from farms as well as backyards.” 

Local businesses who donate to the group include Upriver Organics, Oroweat, Riverbend Farms, WinCo, Costco, Elegant Elephant, Bread Stop, Fireside Distillers, Northern Lights Christmas Tree Farms, and Clear Lake Blueberries. When businesses donate, they receive a receipt from the gleaners for tax purposes. 

Backyard gardeners can donate too. People with extra cherries, plums, figs, apples, pears, and more can contact the gleaners to get a glean team sent out to gather and pick the harvest. 

What is a typical glean? Well, it depends. For simplicity sake, let’s look at a situation where someone has more grapes growing in their back yard than they know what to do with, so they call the gleaners. First thing that happens, a glean leader takes on the assignment. They organize with the home or business owner as to what time the glean will take place. Then the leader coordinates with volunteers from the group who can commit to doing the glean together.  

If a group of four pick 100 lbs. total, or 25 lbs. each, they can keep what they picked or donate all of it, or part of it. The idea is to keep what you will use, and donate what someone else might use. The donated grapes are transported to one of four drop sites for other members to collect if interested.  

All types of things can be a glean. Sometimes a business uses part of something and tosses the rest. For instance, they might use the rind of the lemon but not the fruit of the lemon. Instead of tossing it in the trash, gleaners come by, gather the lemons, and alert members to pick up and make lemonade. Or anything else they want to make from lemons without rinds. 

What makes gleaning successful are people who are willing to show up and do the work. Most gleans take up to a couple hours. If doing the picking isn’t possible, volunteers can help in many other ways like cleaning drop-off sites, or helping with a list of things not related to working in the field, but that help support the organization to run smoothly. 

At this time there are about 800 volunteers signed up, with 200-300 active members.

Beverly Wilson, an active volunteer, started gleaning as a child with her family. She loved it even though they did so out of necessity. Today, Wilson said working with an all volunteer group like this is empowering, “it’s a masterpiece. It’s community.” Another reason this work is meaningful to her is a wider perspective- reducing food waste fights climate change. 

Rotting food produces methane, a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. Reducing food waste really does benefit the planet and the people and animals that need it. Wasting food also means wasting the energy and water that went into growing, harvesting, and packaging.

The gleaners bring together neighbors, businesses, food, and friends for the benefit of all. It’s no wonder they seem happy with this collaboration. Eugene gleaners welcomes more volunteers for the group for continued support, fundraising, and leading gleans. Sometimes gleans are missed because of a lack of leaders. For convenience to those who donate, and those who collect, gleans can be done anytime that works- evenings, mornings, weekdays, weekends.

Marie Summers is the president of the Eugene gleaners. She started by going on gleans where she saw that “everybody benefits” and she “met amazing people.” She emphasized that it’s not a food giveaway but rather “a way for people to help others and help themselves.”