Gleaning, which describes the harvesting of leftover crops, has a rich and ancient history rooted in tradition. The practice is described in the Hebrew Bible as a right for the poor in various Christian kingdoms, and was “so important in the past rural societies that it was even sacred.” Gleaning once provided security to families, guaranteeing that food would be available during times of financial hardship. However, with the rise of industrial society, strict regulations, and private property, the tradition faded in prominence. Today, amid a pandemic, gleaning is making a comeback in the U.S. and helping to keep a city fed.
In 2020, Kansas City has shown that it looks out for those in need, and organizations like After the Harvest are proof of this brotherhood. After the Harvest is a volunteer-based gleaning organization that focuses its efforts on fighting hunger. The group rescues fruits and vegetables that are leftover or imperfect and donates them to hunger-fighting agencies throughout Kansas City. Before the coronavirus pandemic, 300,000 people were at risk of hunger in Kansas City. Today that number has increased to 400,000 – including one in four children.
The idea for creating After the Harvest in 2014 stemmed from a belief that “hungry people deserve healthy food in Greater Kansas City and that no food should go to waste.” What began as an idea has transformed into a steadily growing operation. The small full-time team works alongside thousands of volunteers who are eager to help feed those in need. According to After the Harvest communications director Sandy Vivian, the organization now has relationships with more than 200 farmers in the greater Kansas City area and across the country who offer up their imperfect produce. Some farmers even “grow a row or two extra just for them.”
Once After the Harvest collects the produce, it is distributed across its 367 partner agencies. The organization’s main distribution partner is Harvesters–The Community Food Network, a Feeding America regional food bank that serves the areas of northeastern Kansas and northwestern Missouri. “Harvesters is the primary recipient of produce from After the Harvest. These nutritious fruits and vegetables that are distributed help supplement more shelf-stable (oftentimes processed) foods found on food pantry shelves,” said Vivian. Harvesters says that its food distribution rate is up 2 million pounds compared to this time last year–a common trend in Kansas City. “Basically every pantry, every kitchen, every organization that we talk to has expressed that their client base has grown,” After the Harvest organizer Zachary Callaway told NPR.
According to NPR, After the Harvest has already gleaned upwards of 800,000 pounds of produce this year alone. But its efforts branch beyond the farm. According to City Lifestyle, the organization also rescues food from farmers’ markets and fundraises to “bring semi-truckloads of donated fresh-from-the-farm produce,” to them to distribute. That includes the countless fruits and vegetables deemed cosmetically unsuitable for grocery store shelves that would typically go to waste.
The group also donates gleaned produce to Cross-Lines Community Outreach, a Kansas City social services agency that relies on After the Harvest’s donations as its main source. Rich Kraft, who owns a farm near Kearney, Missouri, had trouble making money off of small, imperfect peppers when he tried selling them in the past. Now, he grows them purely for After the Harvest to glean and donate to agencies like Cross-Lines and Harvesters. Kraft told NPR, “Instead of just throwing it away, they’ll actually take it and eat it. And that’s pretty cool, I like that.”
During a year when food insecurity may be experienced by 1 in 6 people, up by 17 million from this time last year, Kansas City is not alone in its battle against hunger. Gleaning groups like New Jersey-based Farmers Against Hunger and Boston Area Gleaners are running operations similar to After the Harvest, and working to keep their communities fed. As Sandy Vivian says, “Everybody deserves to have fruits and vegetables. No matter what the health situation, fresh produce is an essential way to ensure healthy bodies.” And if there is any lesson gleaning can teach us, it’s that every bit counts.