Glean (verb): to gather grain or other produce left in the fields by reapers after a seasonal harvest.
It’s a steamy June morning with little escape from the Florida sun. Still, a small gathering of sunscreen-clad, sunhat-wielding volunteers pow-wow in the parking lot of the Enza Zaden Research USA Facility in Myakka City.
After the day’s organizer, Rebecca Brey, explains the guidelines, the group sets out toward fields visually ripe with produce bordered by tall sunflower fields and inhabited only by what seem to be some pretty happy birds. The group is there on behalf of sustainable-living nonprofit Transition Sarasota. The intention is to harvest as many pounds of tomatoes, peppers and eggplants as possible before it gets tilled back into the soil the next week.
The team continuously loads bins and crates with harvested produce onto the bed of a truck. The work can be physically grueling at times, especially in the heat, but ask anyone, and they’ll say it’s worth it. Not because they’ll leave with a bag of fresh veggies for their efforts but because the crux of the day’s mission is the truck’s final destination: The Food Bank of Manatee.
“We partner with area farms to pick excess produce and donate to local area food banks,” says Brey, who became Transition Sarasota’s executive director in April. Today’s volunteer efforts and those of all who have gleaned on behalf of the community-oriented nonprofit breathe continuous life into what is known as the Suncoast Gleaning Project. Since its inception in 2012, Transition Sarasota has donated more than 298,000 pounds of produce to local food banks.
“Gleaning breaks down the walls between what is work and what is volunteering,” says Don Hall, founder of Transition Sarasota who now holds a leadership position with Transition United States. “We can do work that benefits ourselves and the community, and we need more of it.”
Hall was working at Jessica’s Organic Farm in North Sarasota when he observed the amount of surplus produce in the fields. Because of his experience in the Transition movement and his efforts at the time to implement a resilient local food system in his own community, Hall chose not to see rotting food. Instead he saw opportunity.
“Some of the most impactful changes we can make is taking what is being wasted and turning into a valuable resource,” he says.
In 2012, thanks to a partnership with Jessica’s Organic Farm, the Suncoast Gleaning Project became a reality as Transition Sarasota’s first community initiative.
Jessica’s presented a unique weekly gleaning opportunity. With the farm stand located on-site, any unsold produce stays in the field as opposed to being harvested all at once at the end of the season. Due to recent climate events, the farm has not had excess to offer. Brey is hopeful they can pick back up with Jessica’s in future seasons, but in the meantime, she turns to Transition Sarasota’s network of additional gleaning opportunities through partnerships, such as the one with Enza Zaden, which started in 2016.
Enza Zaden, a Holland-based vegetable breeding company, is not permitted to sell the produce it grows at its Myakka research facility. Before the gleaning efforts started, at the end of each season, all crops would be tilled back into the soil in preparation for the next growing season.
That was until Rebecca Hirshberg, Enza Zaden breeding coordinator and a member of the board of corporate social responsibility and community outreach, saw a way to mitigate the facility’s edible waste cycle.
“Before gleaning with Transition Sarasota, we weren’t working with the community at all,” Hirshberg says. “The board came together and said, ‘We want to give back.’ I said, ‘I don’t understand why we can’t give some of what we grow back to the community.’”
To implement Hirshberg’s idea, she needed field labor and a way to transport the produce. The Food Bank of Manatee suggested Hirshberg contact Transition Sarasota. Traditionally, food banks were set up to receive and store only nonperishable processed and canned good items, but with the addition of refrigerator storage to places like The Food Bank of Manatee, accepting whole foods and fresh produce has become a desired commodity.
“We know that people in poverty aren’t eating as healthy, … which obviously creates health issues,” says Cindy Sloan, vice president and director of the Food Bank of Manatee. Offering fresh produce tilts the scales for those in need.
So far, the Food Bank of Manatee has received 6,472 pounds of fresh produce gleaned from Enza Zaden’s Myakka facility. In June, the food bank distributed 1,600 pounds of that gleaned produce to attendees at a pop-up laundromat event hosted by the Patterson Foundation’s Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.
“For the most part, we are here at the facility, but every once in a while, we get to go to an event like that, [so] you get to see what it is really doing,” says Sloan. “If we can help on the front end, it’s important.”
Gleaning helps build a stronger community by feeding the food-starved, but it also has the collateral benefit of mitigating the environmental damage that results from millions of pounds of produce rotting in fields or sitting in landfills.
According to Project Drawdown — a book presenting 100 researched and proven ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — food waste comes in at No. 3, which contributes approximately 8% of overall methane emissions in Earth’s atmosphere.
“Food is an investment both in the money that we spend and the environmental impact it takes to grow it,” Brey says. “It takes water, fertilizer, time and energy, and all that is invested on the food that we eat. Yet over a third of that produce is wasting in landfills.”
Brey and her team are not ready to stop at gleaning vegetables alone. Transition Sarasota recently expanded its initiative to include a neighborhood fruit gleaning effort called Bountiful Sarasota.
“We live in a subtropical climate, so during the summer when not as many vegetables are growing, it’s prime season for mangoes, starfruit and other fruit.” Brey says, noting the added benefit of fruit gleaning when it comes to keeping pests away from rotting fruit.
According to the Transition Sarasota website, “Bountiful Sarasota is a means to donate excess or unharvested, local fruit from backyard and neighborhood trees to area food banks, charitable groups and farmers markets.”
Brey is encouraging residents to register plentiful fruit trees into the online database. The site lets residents choose whether to put the surplus fruit in Transition bins for pick-up or to allow Brey to coordinate a gleaning using volunteers, of which they are always looking for more. Brey herself began as a gleaning volunteer.
“It started out as a way to ease the food burden and cost of living as a young professional just having moved to the area,” she says. “It was also a way for me to build more community and help with a local, sustainable food economy.”
To learn more about Transition Sarasota opportunities, visit transitionsrq.org.