Urban Gleaning Programs

Fresh, healthy food reaches the people who need it most and avoids becoming waste, thanks to urban gleaning.

Urban gleaning programs provide fresh food to city residents while keeping uneaten food from household and community gardens, local institutions, and restaurants out of the waste stream. While most gleaning programs are run by nonprofits and informal community groups, some North American cities are taking on gleaning programs as part of city sustainability and public works programming. City-operated gleaning programs focus on harvesting food from local farms, household fruit trees and community gardens. Cities then donate gleaned food to food banks, shelters, community kitchens, and other nonprofits that work to alleviate hunger and provide fresh fruits and vegetables to community members in need.

This video introduces the benefits of gleaning programs and shows how gleaners, farmers and food pantries can partner to provide alleviate hunger while also reducing GHGs from wasted food:

Enterprising non-profits like Hidden Harvest and non-profit grocers like Daily Table demonstrate opportunities to combine food recovery and economic development. Hidden Harvest is a produce ­recovery pro­gram­ that e­m­ploys l­o­w income farm workers to "rescue" produce that is left behind in the fields and orchards aft­er harvest. Daily Table is a not-for-profit retail store that offers the Boston community a variety of fresh and prepared foods at prices competitive with fast food chains through a variety of partnerships with growers, grocery stores, and other suppliers.

Value Proposition for Sustainable Consumption

Consuming food is not only a significant consumption category but also meets an essential need. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, wasted food is the single-largest component of the waste stream by weight, and over 12% of the total municipal food solid waste generated by American households comes from food scraps. Food scraps and unused food decompose in landfills and produce methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.[1] At the same time 40 million Americans living below the poverty line are at risk of hunger.[2] In 2014 gleaning efforts coordinated by Feeding America diverted more than two billion pounds of food from the landfill to bring fresh food to hungry Americans.[3] On the surface gleaning programs may seem like a waste prevention and hunger relief strategy, but these programs can also help to shift consumption habits. Gleaning programs provide a feedback loop for food businesses to prevent excess food production and can help raise awareness with consumers about the importance of reducing wasted food.

Potential City Roles

  • Inventory—identify available food resources and institutional donors.
  • Promote—celebrate and profile gleaning programs. Make food providers aware of available tax incentives.
  • Support—provide space for storage and distribution centers, provide advice, leverage other community organizations for support.
  • Make Policy Adjustments—perform a code review to find potential barriers for gleaning programs, adjust policies to allow for food redistribution if this is a barrier.
  • Convene—bring together stakeholders such as grocery stores, restaurants, farmers, food recovery organizations and organizations feeding the hungry.
  • Educate/Outreach—inform the public of opportunities to participate in gleaning programs.
  • Advocate—lobby to higher levels of government for funding, tax incentives and supportive policies.
  • Develop plans—include food recovery in strategic plans for waste prevention programs.
  • Demonstrate—lead by example by gleaning from City facilities or using gleaned foods in government operations.
  • Develop programs/services—Work with local organizations to develop municipal gleaning programs.
  • Incentivize—provide incentives to businesses and organizations that contribute to gleaning programs such as tax credits.

Implementation Challenges and Potential Solutions

  • Concerns about legal liabilities: Some stores, restaurants and farmers may have concerns about legal liability related to provision of food that is past expiration dates or “imperfect” produce. However, most states have laws protecting gleaners and food donors.[4]
  • Cost-benefit analysis: Before starting or investing in a gleaning program, it’s critical to consider whether outcomes will be worth resources required to run a program. Prepared foods gleaned from restaurants and grocers are unlikely to make a significant impact towards alleviating hunger and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, partnerships with farmers and grocers to recover “imperfect” or older produce may prevent more GHG emissions and feed more people.

Further Resources

Gleaning Guides, Toolkits, and National Networks

Gleaning Programs in Cities

Online Platforms that Support Food Recovery Efforts

  1. Food Waste in America, Society of St. Andrew
  2. Hunger in America, Society of St. Andrew
  3. Reducing Food Waste with Food Rescue, Feeding America
  4. The National Gleaning Project, Vermont Law School