It all started with some crooked zucchinis in Bolinas.
They didn’t conform to the strict aesthetic standards of the market, so they were snipped from the vine and left to rot in the field. The folks at Marin Organic recognized an opportunity and got permission to collect the square-peg squashes and deliver them to a local community center. Residents enjoyed zucchini bread for a week, and Marin Organic’s School Lunch and Gleaning Program was born.
Seven years and 130,000-plus pounds of gleaned produce later, the program is thriving. Over half of Marin County’s schoolchildren are reaping–and eating–the benefits.
Marin Organic, an association of about 40 small farms and ranches within the county, aims to connect the county’s growers with the county’s eaters, says Program Manager Scott Davidson: “The Gleaning Program specifically connects schools with farms, and schoolchildren with soil. It’s a beautiful use of the food.”
Davidson says that as much as 20 percent of certain crops never make it to market. And though unharvested produce isn’t “wasted” in the ecological sense, since it’s tilled back into the soil, it does represent an untapped food resource the farmers themselves don’t have time to recoup. That’s where the Glean Team comes in. Once a week from May through Thanksgiving a crew of staff and volunteers hits the fields in search of unmarketable misfits and delivers this second harvest to participating schools and community centers, where it is incorporated into lunch programs.
Throughout the year kids munch on an array of gleaned goodies, including beets, chard, potatoes, squash, carrots, herbs, blueberries, cherry tomatoes, Meyer lemons, strawberries, and all kinds of greens, even mesclun.
Best of all, the kids get to help harvest some of the bounty themselves. Marin Organic hosts “Farm Days,” field trips that bring kids to the farms so they can find out where their food comes from, learn about soil-building, meet the growers, and get their hands dirty. “Those are our favorite days,” says Davidson. “It’s all about building relationships.”
When Novato Unified School District’s food services director, Miguel Villarreal, realized his schools weren’t getting their ingredients from local farms, he started reaching out to organizations like Marin Organic and the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT).
One of his earliest experiences with the Gleaning Program involved figuring out what to do with half a ton of organic potatoes. Working out the kinks of storing, cleaning, and processing all of this free food was a welcome challenge, and soon Villarreal was regularly acquiring organic produce for his cafeterias. But that wasn’t enough.
“Mom and Dad and the kids had no clue where the food was coming from,” he says, so he made it his mission to connect what he calls “the three Cs”: the classroom, the cafeteria, and the community. He uses a range of tactics, including classroom presentations, educational displays in the cafeteria, school gardens, and most importantly, field trips.
Villarreal is constantly dreaming up events to get students and their families to the farms.
“Every year we step it up a little,” he says. Most recently he secured funding that will pay for a busload of students, teachers, and parents to visit a farm every week.
As Villarreal learned early on, the Gleaning Program is an elegant solution to an obstacle many of us find prohibitive: organic produce is expensive. Supplementing purchased produce with gleaned goods allows schools to stretch their budgets and score more greens for their greenbacks.
According to Villarreal, depending on the time of year, up to 85 percent of the ingredients in a day’s menu–including the entrée, side dish, fruit, and even the milk–are truly local, from within a 20-mile radius of the school.
Though the concept of the Gleaning Program is quite simple, pulling it off is another matter, involving people at all points along the way: teachers, school chefs, administrators, parents, students, volunteers, and growers, just to name a few. It would certainly be simpler to order cases of frozen food from a national giant like Sysco, but the Gleaning Program is what Davidson calls a “synergistic, win-win-win solution.” The gleaned food supplies a need that farmers don’t have time to fill, volunteers have the opportunity to enjoy being outside doing meaningful service, kids (and adults) get to harvest food with their own hands, and communities get stronger.
“We’re re-connecting the dots,” says Davidson.
Villarreal described last year’s Thanksgiving Gleaning event, the first of many, he hopes. The numbers themselves are impressive: about 60 people harvested over 200 boxes of produce, most of which was donated to local food banks. It was a diverse group, from school board members to the superintendent, the principal, a school nurse, parents, teachers, and, of course, students. Interns from local universities even brought their professors and classmates.
“The entire community is supporting our efforts,” says Villarreal. It’s hard to imagine people getting that excited about unloading a Sysco truck.
The Marin Organic Glean Team harvested at Green Gulch Farm just this past Sunday. If you would like to get your hands dirty, contact Scott Davidson at email@example.com.