Gleaning in History

The practice is described in the Hebrew Bible and became a legal entitlement for the poor in a number of Christian kingdoms throughout history. It has also been portrayed in art. Perhaps the best known of the art works is The Gleaners by French painter, Jean-Francois Millet.

In the Old Testament, farmers were told not to pick their fields and vineyards clean, but leave the edges of the fields for orphans, widows and travelers to harvest.

Gleaning Today

Modern gleaning is about preventing food waste. Gleaning is currently experiencing a resurgence in the U.S. Anti-hunger organizations are returning to this ancient practice to help feed the poor and give farmers a way to salvage produce that would otherwise be wasted.

(The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet, 1857)

Food is left in fields for a number of reasons, primarily mechanical harvesting that misses a significant amount and crops that aren't pretty enough for supermarkets.

Gleaning remained a fundamental feature of rural societies until recent times but lost importance during the growth of industrial societies. It was specifically prohibited in the Soviet Union in the 1930's, aggravating famine in the Ukraine.

Gleaners don’t need special tools or training. They simply walk the fields with a bag and pick up food that's lying on the ground. It's an activity suitable for young and old alike.

Gleaning Prevents Waste

Approximately 50% of all produce in the United States is thrown away. Food waste is also the single most plentiful filler in American landfills. A major reason is that food is cheaper in the United States than nearly anywhere else in the world, aided by subsidies for corn, wheat, milk, and soybeans. But it appears to be a cultural dynamic as well due to a national obsession with the aesthetic quality of food. Fruits and vegetables, in addition to generally being healthful, have a tendency to bruise, brown, wilt, oxidize, and discolor which is unappealing to American shoppers. For an American family of four, the average value of discarded produce totals around $1,600 annually.

Recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that 96 billion pounds of food goes to waste in this country every year, and that estimate continues to rise. Globally, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of all food grown is lost or wasted, an amount valued at nearly $3 trillion.

Overseas, France has banned supermarkets from throwing away food by directing them to compost or donate all expiring or unsold food. Germany is reforming expiration dates which can be arbitrary. The United States may still have the farthest to go, especially on a cultural level.

The U.S. Food Waste Challenge

On June 4, 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, calling on entities across the food chain (farms, agricultural processors, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, universities, schools, and local governments) to join efforts to:

  1. Reduce food waste by improving product development, storage, shopping/ordering, marketing, labeling, and cooking methods.
  2. Recover food waste by connecting potential food donors to hunger relief organizations like food banks and pantries.
  3. Recycle food waste to feed animals or to create compost, bioenergy and natural fertilizers.

By joining the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, organizations and businesses can commit to reducing food waste, helping to feed the hungry in their communities, and reducing environmental impact of wasted food. The Challenge’s inventory of activities helps disseminate information about the best practices to reduce, recover, and recycle food waste and stimulate the development of these practices. Participants also provide a snapshot of the country’s successes in reducing, recovering, and recycling food waste.

Organizations in the U.S. food chain that currently create food waste are invited to join the Food Waste Challenge. This includes food producer groups, processors, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, food service industry groups, NGO’s, state, county and city governments, and other Federal agencies. Individual consumer activities, though very important to the goal of reducing, recovering, and recycling food waste, are not included on the U.S. Food Waste Challenge website.

Participants complete the USDA activity form listing the key activities they are or will practice to reduce, recover, or recycle food waste in their operations. Or, participants join via participation in the EPA Food Recovery Challenge and benefit from EPA’s technical expertise. The U.S. Food Waste Challenge is an umbrella challenge that includes both participants who join by filling out the USDA activity form and participants of EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge.

The Food Recovery Challenge offers participants access to data management software and technical assistance to help them quantify and improve their sustainable food management practices. Participants enter goals and report food waste diversion data annually into EPA’s data management system. They then receive an annual climate profile report that translates their food diversion data results into greenhouse gas reductions as well as other equivalents to help participants communicate the benefits of activities implemented. EPA provides on-going technical assistance to EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge participants to encourage continuous improvement.

(Sources:; photos: USDA, Capital Roots; Project SHARE;