glean verb: to pick over in search of relevant material –webster.com
In America, the wealthiest country in the world, more than one in seven families are unsure if they will have enough to eat. Among these 50 million people are 17 million children.
Yet, our country has more than enough food to feed us all. The estimated that more than one-fourth of all food produced is never even eaten. Others put the figure at nearly forty percent, or more than 29 million tons of food wasted each year.
So, there is ample “relevant material” to pick through.
That is where organizations such as Gleaners Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan come in. Founded in 1977, Gleaners obtains and “banks” surplus food, which it then distributes to other agencies that provide food directly to those in need. In 2010, Gleaners distributed 36.7 million pounds of food. Gleaners purchases at low cost about one-third of the food it distributes with the rest being donated by grocers, retailers, manufacturers, the government, and others.
Gleaners is a large organizations with $75 million in revenues, including $55 million in donated food. Gleaners provides food through nearly 500 partner agencies. The very scale of its operations requires food to be collected, “banked,” and then redistributed to others. This places an emphasis on non-perishable food.
This is where other “hybrid” models of food gleaning have taken up the challenge. For instance, B-Line Sustainable Deliveries in Portland, takes a very — well, Portlandia — approach to gleaning and to delivery more broadly. Fully in keeping with its ultra bike-friendly culture, for-profit B-Line’s goal is to create sustainable, livable urban communities. Pulling their 600-pound capacity storage crates with electric-assist cargo “tricycles,” B-Line makes local pickups and deliveries, freeing businesses from managing these details, and packing a wallop of carbon savings at the same time. Now, B-Line has entered the food gleaning business.
By being completely “connected” in the local distribution network within Portland, B-Line is able to use its trikes to make small pickups and timely deliveries. Partnering with high-end food companies like Whole Foods, B-Line whisks food around the city, providing meals at half the typical cost to shelters and food kitchens, and letting them serve delicacies including fresh, organic produce (which might otherwise be landfilled). B-Line’s financing model relies on B-Shares, or tax-deductible contributions individuals and its partners make to its mission to eliminate hunger in Portland. B-shares can be purchased in one-time, $20 denominations (which provide 40 meals) or on a recurring, subscription basis.
But this is but one of many other hybrid gleaning models. In Ames, Iowa, fresh, gleaned food is intended to provide the ingredients for Food-At-First‘s non-profit restaurant. This is a restaurant that serves all strata of Ames — from those who would typically go to a food pantry to others who simply want to enjoy a meal out. Customers may donate what they can (helping subsidize the meals of others) or offer to work in exchange for what they have eat.
Many benefits flow from this model, certainly not the least of which is the ability to feed the hungry with food that would otherwise be wasted. But the restaurant also fosters a sense of community between those of us fortunate enough know that there will be a next meal, and those who aren’t. In many of the problems we face as a society, creating a shared mission among community members from different walks of life is a vital first step.
In their book Cradle to Cradle (read it if you haven’t) Will McDonough and Michael Braungart describe a new industrial model where waste equals food. In other words, industrial processes should produce “waste” that can become an input (“food”) for producing something else.
Gleaners, B-Line, At-First-Food, and other organizations like them show how this advice can be taken literally — and nutritiously — to address a problem we are more than capable of solving.
A number of us at the University of Michigan are banding together to explore sustainable food systems. Among us are are faculty members representing Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Natural Resources; Urban and Regional Planning: Public Health, Political Science, Complex Systems; and Business. The University is funding five faculty positions to support this work. Stay tuned as I report on this exciting initiative.