By Antonella Ragusi
As part of a research placement at the Food Partnership, MSc student Antonella Ragusi volunteered with the Sussex Gleaning Network to collect surplus chard from a local farm, and then followed its journey to local projects serving meals to the community. In this guest blog, Antonella shares her experience of gleaning, and explains how it helps tackle food waste and provides food to those in need.
It’s 9am on a Thursday morning and I’m joining the coordinator and volunteers of the Sussex Gleaning Network by the Brighton Open Market. Today, I’m finally going on a glean!
What is gleaning? Gleaning is an ancient custom, even mentioned in biblical books, which gave entitlements to the less fortunate of a community. Traditionally, in Britain, gleaners were given access to the fields to harvest any left behind fruits, vegetables or grains for their own consumption. Gleaning was a common labour component during the harvest season, but by the twentieth century this custom had ceased, and gleaners were excluded from the fields.
So, by joining a glean, I was curious to learn more about the practice and how the Gleaning Network organisation brought gleaning back into modern times.
The surplus greens
Nowadays, gleaner volunteers are invited to farms to rescue surplus food from going to waste. On this occasion, we drove to a farm in West Sussex who had a variety of surplus green leaves such as kale, chard and other salads.
As we reach the site, it’s quickly evident this farm is pretty unique. We spoke to the owner who explained the concept behind Full Circle Farms. He shared many stories and ideas about re-imagining the way farming is conducted to respect all the biological organisms involved.
I was surprised to learn about how food “waste” can be put to different uses. On this farm, all organic matter (waste) is gathered post-harvest, then composted and re-used to fertilise the soil to grow crops the following year.
Nevertheless, the purpose of our visit was to rescue surplus, not waste. What is the difference? Surplus refers to those food items still perfectly edible but which, for one reason or another, no longer provide economic benefits to the producer. This can be for a variety of reasons. In this case, a sales fall-through and cold-weather event left the plants to overgrow and bolt prematurely. Unfortunately, this rapidly changes the appearance and taste of the leaves, and without any orders in near sight the produce became surplus.
The journey of rainbow swiss chard
So, the trail of the journey of surplus food begins here, at the farm-site, where the leafy greens were diverted from the waste stream. I’m drawn to the colourful rainbow swiss chard which becomes my target to follow.
The gleaners spent the day harvesting higher-graded chard leaves, discarding any root rot or damaged leaves into the compost, then carefully boxing them up. The harvest was then weighed for recording and loaded into the vans for delivery.
I really enjoyed the gleaning day because many interesting considerations arose from connecting with the farm, the land and the source of food. For example, we spent time touching, smelling, tasting different leaves. There was a therapeutic aspect to being in the field, while also quite social as we spent time sharing life stories, discussing best picking techniques and the issue of food waste.
We then delivered the rescued surplus rainbow swiss chard to two community cafés in the city: a vegan café at the Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project, and the pay-as-you-feel pop-up café run by the Real Junk Food Project. It is here that the journey of surplus rainbow swiss chard is completed, cooked and served as a meal to the community.
Upon arrival, the delivery of chard was immediately stored in the fridge together with a variety of other surplus foods. The following morning, the staff looked through the ingredients, decided what needed to be used, and made up the lunch menu for that day. A process that some of the staff said resembled the cookery programme “Ready, Steady, Cook”. Then, the volunteers spent the morning sorting through the surplus food discarding inedible bits, washing, chopping, cooking, and setting up the serving counter, plates and tables.
During lunchtime, these cafés are lively social spaces where lots of people visit. In one sitting, service can be from 30 up to 150 people (depending on the day and the size of the venue). At the Unemployed Centre Families Project, a large plate meal is £1.50, while the pay-as-you-feel concept embraces a sharing concept which enables individuals to exchange either money or skills, time, ideas/creativity through volunteering for their meal. At both sites, the exchange-value (monetary or otherwise) enabled the project to cover their overheads, but mainly to be able to assure the project’s functioning and survival.
It’s wonderful to see so many people engage and volunteer with the Surplus Food Network – a collection of local organisations working collaboratively to intercept and redistribute surplus food. It’s thanks to their dedicated work that surplus can be redistributed, giving more people access to a healthy and deliciously cooked meal.