Gleaning Girls: Tackling Britain's Food Waste Problem
by Theodora Young
An estimated 10% of wealthy countries’ greenhouse gas emissions come from food that is never eaten. That must make Britain a huge culprit of gas contributions from food waste, with approximately 20 to 40% of fruit and veg being rejected before it even reaches the shelves. This is largely based on the excessively strict cosmetic standards of supermarkets, a product of skewed consumer culture in this country. Supermarkets themselves dump the risk of food waste onto farmers through unfair policy, therefore action must be taken at farm-level to raise awareness about the huge environmental impact our policies of food production are having.
Inspired by organisations such as the Society of St Andrews in the US, which has saved over 164 million pounds of food for the hungry since 1998 with the help of over 400,000 volunteers, a global organisation called Feedback has launched its own Gleaning Network in the UK. This has grown rapidly in 4 years, gleaning 188 tonnes of produce (equal to more than 2 million portions of fruit and veg) with over 1,000 volunteers across 99 gleaning days between 2012 and 2015. Using the notion of an ‘Arable Spring,’ the network aims to raise awareness about the urgent issue of food waste on farms, and change retailer policies and the consumer cultures that lead to such waste.
The network has connections with charities such as Foodcycle and Fareshare, which is crucial when such losses are happening in a society in which 8.4 million people suffer from food poverty. Fareshare collects the food harvested by gleaners and redistributes it around the country where it is used by partner charities to help feed those who need it, contributing to 18.3 million meals a year.
On Monday the 3rd of October, I volunteered to join a team of Gleaners salvaging cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli from a farm in Hesketh Bank in Preston. The Volunteer Co-ordinator for the North West, Emma, put me in touch with some fellow Gleaners also heading to Preston from South Manchester, so by9am on that cool autumn morning I joined them and we sped out of the bustling city into the breezy Preston countryside.
We hadn’t long since been shown the fields where our crop was lying in wait to be harvested, when I realised that I was one of 9 women talking to the farmer about why his beautiful veg wasn’t needed by the local supermarkets. Though I know little about the implications of gender in combating issues of food waste, I couldn’t help wondering if this was a regular phenomenon. I asked Emma when we had a moment between cutting veg from the ground, and she said that it was something that she regularly noticed. She told me that she had asked her co-workers from other branches of the Gleaning Network if they experienced the same, and they said they did. Often, a large group of Gleaners will consist of just a couple of guys. She did however mention that many of the office-based roles in the Gleaning Network are filled by men, so it’s not as though women are the only ones preoccupied with the issue of food waste.
I nevertheless found it an interesting observation - for a country in which, historically, women have less of a role in food production, girls are now more keen to get involved in the hands-on aspect of salvaging waste. Women are more traditionally attributed key roles in family nutrition and care, which could be transposed the care that those who are in need of healthy meals receive food that is going spare. As Emma mentioned in our briefing, food connects us to each other and to the Earth, and thus the issue of food waste finds us united in a familial way, ensuring that all are looked after. I don’t believe that it’s the Gleaning Network’s marketing that is attracting more women than men, but perhaps the word of mouth element in raising awareness sees girls spread information about the issue to their friends more than their male compatriots.
Whatever the reasons, the Gleaning Network’s mission is to empower individuals to take what action they can. As individuals, our role is crucial in reducing food waste and putting pressure on private sector, supermarkets and governments to avoid wastage and end the cycle of food waste. It doesn’t matter the gender; the message is clear – the power is in our hands to reverse this criminal cycle. For an organisation in its 4th year, this slight disparity is not alarming. All hands that are happy to help are welcome, and I believe that the Arable Spring in the UK will keep growing such that many more thousands of men and women from all ends of the country may too find themselves part of a Gleaning Team in the not too distant future.
Read all about Feedback, the Gleaning Network, FareShare and Foodcycle here: