Volume XI | Issue 1 | Spring 2011
Volunteers repack donated vegetables at the Linn Benton Food Share warehouse. Photo: Adam Bacher

Gleaners provide a hand up, not a handout

A small army of volunteers gathers food and other staples year-round

Twice a month, the cavernous warehouse at Linn Benton Food Share fills up with the good-natured chatter of 75 or so hard-working volunteers, gathered there to repackage bulk quantities of donated food into household-size portions. The volunteers are from the 14 active gleaning groups in the two-county area. 

At one such event in late February, the “repack” consists of eight big totes of frozen vegetables, courtesy of NORPAC. Some of the vegetables will be added to Food Share’s stores, with the rest going home with the gleaners, who share half the food they collect with their elderly or disabled members.

one of the best-kept secrets in Oregon

The gleaners are part of a small army of volunteers in Oregon who gather food and other staples year-round. About 30 independent gleaning groups, most of them operating in conjunction with area food banks, involve more than 8,000 low-income households in collecting food and firewood. 

“My first job with gleaning was in 1986 as a VISTA worker organizing firewood gleaning in Linn and Benton counties,” says Sharon Thornberry, community resource developer for the Oregon Food Bank. “Interest in gleaning groups waned for a few years earlier this decade, but the current recession has triggered a resurgence of participation in the programs.  Gleaning is one of the best ways that people can help themselves, and I think that’s why it is so popular.”

Gleaning also provides people with fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables, the types of foods often lacking in the diet of the low-income population. Gleaning has been around since biblical times, when the Deuteronomic Code required farmers to leave sections of their fields unharvested for the poor. 

Food to firewood

In Oregon, gleaners harvest end-of-season fruit and vegetable crops, pick up donated food at local stores, haul firewood, and repackage bulk food. Often, gleaners are able to also supplement local food pantry supplies. 

Different groups take advantage of unique opportunities in their area. The Linn Benton organization, for example, has an agreement with Oregon State University and the USDA so area groups can glean research plots growing blueberries, potatoes and sweet corn. The gleaning groups in Linn and Benton counties alone distributed 2.5 million pounds of food to their 4,500 members last year. Linn Benton Food Share is the only regional food bank that funds a full-time gleaning programs coordinator; its gleaning groups are considered member agencies.

Gleaning in Oregon began in the early 1970s in the Portland area, with the Metro Area Gleaning Cooperative harvesting and distributing more than 300,000 pounds of produce to 1,129 families in food banks. In 1977, the Oregon Legislature approved a tax credit for farmers donating to gleaning programs. Over the next 20 years, gleaning groups grew across the state and began to work in partnership with regional food banks. In 1998, the Oregon Food Bank hired the first statewide gleaning coordinator. 

“I think of the gleaning programs as one of the best-kept secrets in Oregon,” Thornberry says. “Over the past 40 years, thousands of low-income people have worked together in communities across Oregon to harvest and recover millions of pounds of food and hundreds of cords of firewood.

“All gleaning programs give participants a ‘hands-on’ way to participate in their individual and community food system. They partner with gardeners and farmers to help make the best use of our rich agricultural bounty.”

The gleaning groups in the Linn Benton Food Share area are typical of most in Oregon. Each is an independent organization registered as a 501(c)3. Interested gleaners must apply for membership and meet low-income guidelines. If they are able-bodied, members are required to put in four to eight hours a month of work. 

Monthly meetings

Volunteer coordinators meet monthly with each other and Susan James, volunteer coordinator for the Linn Benton Food Share. There, they exchange ideas, and receive training in grant writing, donor relations and in conforming to federal food-gleaning guidelines.

“Gleaning is a very positive activity. It empowers them and gives them control of their own life,” says James. 

“A lot of elderly people come out to the warehouse twice month for repack, for example, and that’s a big social event for them. As a working group, the gleaners’ mission is ‘A hand up, not a handout.’” 

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