An idea dating to biblical times that could be replicated elsewhere!
The Cornwall Gleaning network was started in early 2020 after its founder, Holly Whitelaw watched a Simon Reeve documentary about Cornwall, its hidden poverty and challenges being faced by its inhabitants.
After some shocking conversations with desperate individuals on the front line of the food poverty crisis, Holly decided to set up a project that could help in some way.
What is gleaning and how can it help in today’s world?
It is the act of harvesting surplus produce from farmers’ fields that would otherwise go to waste. It was actually a protected right of the ‘poor and the alien’ in days gone by. Farmers were obliged to leave behind the crops that had fallen to the ground or were left around field edges, and these could be rightfully collected by those in need of sustenance. The practice has a rich history and is referred to in the Bible as a way to help ensure that in hard times, there was enough food for those in need. It acted as a social buffer, an ancient means of social welfare and was a right of the poor up to the late 18th century, under common law.
Today the practice of ‘gleaning’ is making a comeback as it offers both a means of reducing food waste in the fields and in processing units, as well as a way to feed those in need fresh produce, which is often missing in foodbanks. It is something people can do to make a difference, reducing our environmental impact while also exercising with a friendly group in the outdoors. It is a way for us to also get closer to where our food comes from and the hard work that goes into producing it!
The Gleaning Network Cornwall was born!
This seemed the perfect thing to do here in Cornwall, where the community is tight and agricultural land is common. It was a big challenge and one that took huge amounts of setting up, negotiating and explaining, but now the network is really gaining traction.
After securing some funding from Feeding Britain, Holly Whitelaw, founder of Cornwall Climate Action Network was able to bring a paid team of coordinators together, who began to set up regular weekly gleans and secure new farms to work with. Once the word got out and volunteers started to jump on board, the network quickly started to shift larger and larger amounts. So far, the network has gleaned over 32 tonnes of fresh veg and fruit and counting!!!!
Working with over 150 organisations, the fresh produce is taken and shared out to an ever spreading web of recipients, including food banks from Plymouth to Penzance, meals on wheels, soup kitchens, community larders and kitchens, church groups, a women’s refuge, homeless shelters and many others.
Good for people, good for planet
Whilst obviously being a fantastic way to help people, gleaning also has an environmental benefit too. When food is grown, it takes energy and resources to get to the point of harvest. If then it is ploughed back into the fields, this energy in the form of carbon goes to waste. When you add up the millions of tonnes of fresh food that is wasted across the planet, it becomes apparent that the more we can save the better for our environment. It is estimated that if food waste were a country, then it would be the third highest emitter of GHG emissions. So really it is a win, win situation all round!
How is the produce distributed?
Luckily, Cornwall is a county packed full of generous souls who want to help others, and this has become apparent in our distribution systems. Whether it is taken by one of the wonderful volunteers in a car boot or put into one of the storage facilities that are situated near the main roads such as the A30 ready for collection by one of the superstar drivers who then take it on its way, the produce is sent out and arrives fresh and free all over Cornwall!
So, what next?
The responsibility of keeping this food coming is very real and the project is constantly striving to be bigger, better, more sustainable, and efficient.
The aim is very much to keep growing. Our volunteer numbers are ever increasing, and everyone enjoys the sense of achievement and the feel good factor after a day of fresh air in the Cornish countryside.
The project will work in relationship with the Cornwall Climate Action, Cornwall Wildlife Trust, Westcountry Rivers Trust, Cornwall Landscape Partnership and other tree planting groups. The extreme high winds in Cornwall over the last year have highlighted the need for shelter belts on farms. This winter the project will expand into tree planting, offering farmers some planted shelter belts for free, whilst utilising the volunteer groups and offering this beneficial activity to organisations working in the mental health, rehabilitation and social prescribing sectors.