'Gleaning' boosts demand for discarded produce

Sensemaking / 'Gleaning' boosts demand for discarded produce

New initiatives aim to change perceptions of cosmetically challenged fruit and veg, and cut fresh food waste.

By Olivia James / 04 Jun 2013

Gleaning, an ancient practice where a farmer allows locals to harvest crops with no market value, is gaining traction as an answer to today’s food waste crisis. It is estimated that retailers reject 20-40% fresh produce because it fails to meet their tough cosmetic standards. But new initiatives in the UK, the US and France aim to boost the value of these discards.

Gleaning Network UK, set up by the food waste campaign Feeding the 5000, coordinates farmers and volunteers to harvest fresh, surplus food for redistribution charities. The long-term ambition is to change “the market to make gleaning impossible”. Founder Tristram Stuart says “we want to create a demand in the market for wonky fruit and veg” by influencing the public’s perception.

Gleaning helps highlight the lunacy that so much fresh food is binned, explains Dan Crossley, Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council. “It also shows that cosmetically imperfect food is not just edible but valuable.”

Who will pay for it, and how much, remains to be seen. The potential growth of gleaning could be limited by too great a dependence on volunteers. However, the Californian start-up FoodStar aims to prove the monetary value of ‘cosmetically challenged’ food by marketing it in mainstream retailers.

“We intervene and try to market this perfectly edible and nutritious produce”, says Stuart Rudick from FoodStar. “There is nothing wrong with the produce – it’s not waste. It’s a perception issue; we are working hard to change this so that more produce is consumed in the fresh state”, rather than being further processed, used as animal feed or sent to landfill.  

FoodStar finds farmers with surplus food, and brings the produce to supermarkets to sell at bargain prices. It then alerts members – who have signed up online – where and when the food will be available. The aim is to help consumers access inexpensive, nutritious produce, while giving the farmers fair prices. In its first month, FoodStar sold over $3,000 of surplus apples and sweet potatoes. Rudick is confident that the supply of produce can support large volumes, and is looking to expand the platform to more supermarkets.

The new trend in gleaning comes at an opportune moment. “People now understand that looks are not necessarily an indicator of the quality”, explains John Gregson, Senior Manager at Waitrose. Waitrose operates a system called ‘flexing the specs’ in buying its own produce. Weather and harvests are analysed, and optimum cosmetic and sizing standards are altered accordingly, so farmers can bring as much to the shelf as possible. – Olivia James

Photo credit: Flickr USDAgov

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