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The 21st century has seen the resurrection of gleaning – the age-old practice of harvesting unwanted crops. We spoke to the coordinator of the Bath branch of the Avon Gleaning Network, Samantha Williamson, who, along with other local volunteers, has collected almost 12 tonnes of surplus fruit and vegetables that would have gone to waste…

Gleaning: the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or from land where it is not economically profitable to harvest. Under the blazing sun or cool grey skies, volunteers around the country have been rescuing tonnes of surplus food from their local farms, redistributing them to local food banks and charitable projects. Their aim: to help reduce food waste and alleviate food insecurity in the UK.

The Avon Gleaning Network has saved nearly 12 tonnes of food from 16 farms across the Avon and Somerset region

Research from UK campaign group Feedback, which works to regenerate nature by transforming the food system, found that up to 16% of a farmer’s crop is wasted before it has even left the field, with much more never being harvested at all. While this is often due to a range of factors that are beyond a farmer’s control – such as produce not being the right shape or size for supermarkets, or even inaccurate forecasting by retailers on how much produce they will buy, leaving farmers with excess crop that can’t be harvested without losing money – billions of meals go to waste each year.

The practice of agricultural gleaning is an ancient one. Historical records show that it has been in existence for at least 4,000 years. The Old Testament commanded Hebrew farmers to leave a portion of their crops unharvested and allow neighbours to pick what was left for themselves and their families. Gleaning came to an end in the late 18th century when a court case ruled in favour of private property rights and landowners began to restrict access to fields. Today, however, as 9.5 million tonnes of food are thrown away in a single year and 7 million people struggle to afford to eat, it is clear that gleaning is needed as much as it ever was.

With that in mind, Feedback launched its Gleaning Network project in 2012. Seven years later, after working with 60 farmers, 3,000 volunteers and numerous charities to salvage over 500 tonnes of food, Feedback began to train community groups across the country to run gleaning activities in their local area. The campaign group initially supported the newly formed networks with a £2,000 grant, which allowed over 20 teams to evolve into well-oiled machines.

In Bath our local group is the Avon Gleaning Network (previously the Bath Gleaning Network) – founded by Nick Haigh in September 2020, the Bath branch is headed up by Samantha Williamson. With over 700 hours of volunteer time, the Avon Gleaning Network has saved nearly 12 tonnes of food from 16 farms across the Avon and Somerset region. Some 28 charitable food projects, including Fareshare, Stokes Croft Food Project and Secret Soup Society, have received fresh produce that would have otherwise gone to waste.

“I started volunteering with Avon Gleaning Network in the summer of 2021 after reading an article about a project in Los Angeles, USA where they rescued fruits from trees in the city and redistributed them to local citizens,” says Samantha. My local group was in Bristol and I got in touch with Nick Haigh who was running that group for advice on how to start my own network around Bath. We decided to join forces and expand the existing network.”

Feedback’s gleaning network has not only helped tackle issues of food waste in the UK, but it has given volunteers the opportunity to engage with the food system hands-on. “Food waste is a huge issue in the UK and gleaning, while not the ultimate solution, is a great way to alleviate this problem, also getting people outdoors into the fields which has great mental and physical health benefits. Gleaning also increases awareness of our food systems, where food comes from, and the problem of food waste. It connects like-minded people, which builds a stronger and more resilient community,” explains Samantha.

Although the Avon Gleaning Network goes from strength to strength, it relies heavily on volunteers to help drive the campaign into a national movement. “We’re calling out for more coordinators and volunteers to help build on the work of our members,” says Sam. “We’re also looking to connect with more local growers in the Avon and Somerset area to help save tonnes of food from going to waste.”

“The amount of time that I work for the Network varies from 3–5 hours per week to in peak harvesting season upwards of 15 hours a week. Our volunteers can dedicate as much or as little time as they have, whether they attend every glean or just a couple a year, we appreciate it all!”

Ultimately, this ancient tradition has transformed into a dynamic opportunity to tackle food waste and security in our communities –
its potential is vast.

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