Environment

'It's not just wonky veg': Meet the women using an ancient practice to help tackle food poverty

This 'gang of gleaners' salvage produce from farms and growers to redistribute to food banks, feeding 12,000 hungry people every week

Holly Whitelaw's 'gang of gleaners'. Credit: Cornwall Gleaning Network

Across the rainy fields of Cornwall, volunteers are getting busy.

“We did two lots of cauliflowers this week,” says Holly Whitelaw, coordinator of the Gleaning Cornwall network. “It was a very jolly group.”

Armed with gloves, crates, and hessian sacks, Whitelaw and her “gang of gleaners” salvage produce from farms and growers to redistribute to food banks, feeding 12,000 hungry people every week.

They’re on a mission: to help feed people who need it, and to tackle Britain’s food waste problem.

“Food waste is obvious living in Cornwall. You see crops rotting in the field, you can smell them – but it’s still an eye-opener just how much there is,” Whitelaw explains. “That’s where we come in.”

Like similar groups up and down the country, the Cornwall network works with farmers to salvage crops that wouldn’t otherwise be harvested. If a vegetable is too big, too small, too wonky, or slightly discoloured, supermarkets will reject it. Often, there’s simply too much of a crop, as farmers overproduce in order to meet the tight margins of a contract.

Producers are struggling to meet the demands of a “broken food system,” Whitelaw says – one which prioritises low prices at the expense of producers.

Some 3.3 million tonnes of food is wasted on farms in the UK each year – of which 2.9 million tonnes is edible. That’s the equivalent of more than 18 million meals per day, the World Wildlife Foundation warned in 2022.

Gleaning is a way to regain some of this lost food – an it’s “not just wonky veg,” Whitelaw explains.

“We glean all sorts of things. If a food processer has, for example, butter with a bit too much salt, or cream, we collect that. And we glean coffee that has been roasted more than three months ago – it’s gorgeous, top notch coffee, but just so slightly past its shelf life. And we get the coffee husks, which are high in nitrogen, which we give out to small growers,” she says.

“It started as: ‘Oh, let’s go get these veg.’ And now it’s grown into this kind of circular economy redistribution network.”

Gleaning was a legal entitlement in England until the 18th century – until land enclosures and a series of legal judgements bolstered the rights of landowners at the expense of peasants.

Volunteers in the field. Credit: Gleaning Cornwall network

With the cost of living crisis biting, gleaning is due a resurgence, Whitelaw says.

“The world is collapsing, and people are struggling,” she said. “Food is a fundamental, healthy food is so important to the young, to the old, to those who are struggling financially.”

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 5.7 million low-income households are having to cut down or skip meals because they don’t have enough money for food.

The “horrendous new normal” also impacts the quality of people’s diets, the JRF warned; some 2.3 million low-income households on universal credit have been forced to buy cheaper, less nutritious food.

It’s a catch-22 that Whitelaw has experienced first-hand. 

“I’m in touch with that memory of how it feels to be stuck in that fear-mode of debt, with three young children to feed,” she recalls. “You’re not able to do anything but buy shitty food – and how are you supposed to get out of that situation?“

The support of friends and family helped Whitelaw and her children though that tough patch. Gleaning, she says, is an extension of that “community mindset.”

Whitelaw set up the group in 2021 after watching a food series on food poverty, three years – and two grants from Feeback and Feeding Britain – later, and the gleaning gang are a growing community. It’s “such a buzz” to get out in the field, says Jeni Duncan, a volunteer coordinator with the group. Food poverty is close to home for the former Big Issue vendor.

“I know what it’s like to eat from a skip, which is what we did before the arrival of food banks, there wasn’t much fresh food,” she says.

“The streets were challenging for a lone woman to say the least, and I got a lot of negativity from the men to be honest. It taught me resilience, I always like to see the positive in a difficult situation. I guess that’s why Gleaning appeals and resonates so deeply with me. It has a simplicity, harvesting what would become waste produce, and distributing it to those in food poverty.”

The Cornwall gleaning network now supply more than 100 food banks and community kitchens. Over three years, they’ve saved local food charities some £400,000 by supplying them with over 210 tonnes of fresh produce.

As the cost of living crisis grinds on, it’s easy to feel hopeless at the state of the world. But if you’re feeling despondent, volunteering – and gleaning – is a great way to fight back.

“Being outside with people who give a shit really helps,” Whitelaw says.

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