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Gleaning is one way to address food insecurity with leftover produce that usually goes to waste

Courtesy Of Ashley Lancaster
The harvest from one of Ashley Lancaster’s gleaning outings. Gleaning is when leftover produce is collected and distributed to people suffering from food insecurity.

Joe Hanel works for the Colorado Health Institute. He’s also a big believer in raising and sourcing his own food.

He also has a lot of animals that were running around during his interview.

"You're hearing a cat and there's chickens outside," he said. "I think we're up to 14 chickens now."

Food insecurity is a problem statewide, but especially in the Four Corners region.

"16% of respondents answered that they ate less than they thought they should because there wasn't enough money for food in the past 12 months," says Hanel. "That is way higher than the state average of 10%."

According to Hanel and the report from the Colorado Health Institute - housing instability, low wages, food insecurity - all these issues are intricately connected.

"And it actually is, in general, more of a widespread problem in rural areas than urban areas," says Hanel. "It kind of has a cruel irony to it when you think that rural areas are the breadbasket. That's where our food is raised."

Rachel Landis is the director of the Good Food Collective, a nonprofit organization based out of Durango. They started fruit gleaning three years ago - which basically means harvesting leftover produce in backyards and orchards and redistributing it to folks in need.

"Honestly, what food banks and food pantries are always asking for is like, they just don't have enough fresh fruit and veggies," says Landis. "Which is what their clients and customers really, really want."

Last year, they were able to harvest more than 20,000 pounds of fruit by gleaning. Here's how Landis describes what that quantity of food looks like:

"I feel like the back of a pickup, if you were to fill that just straight up with fruit that's like two thousand pounds"

That means they collected the equivalent of ten pickups full of food, according to Landis' estimation.

Based on their success in La Plata, the Good Food Collective hired a new gleaning coordinator for Montezuma county, Ashley Lancaster. She started just a couple weeks ago. This will be the first full season of gleaning in Montezuma county. Lancaster herself lives on a farm.

The excess fruit and vegetables from her garden inspired Lancaster to take on this gleaning project.

"And hopefully, after this conversation, people will be out watching and seeing trees and be like, 'Oh, well, maybe I should go let my neighbor know about this,'" says Lancaster.

Courtesy Of Ashley Lancaster
Ashley Lancaster often gleans the extra produce from her own orchard. Sometimes her daughter tags along on gleaning trips too.

Lancaster and volunteers for the Good Food Collectives sort the fruit after harvesting it. Lower quality produce is used for pig and livestock feed. The high quality stuff is saved for people. Healthier diets that include nutrient dense foods like fruit and vegetables are more expensive than less healthy alternatives. You don’t pay for the calories so much as you pay for the nutrition.

"I love being able to go and get fresh, fresh food to give to those that might be struggling a little bit right now with the COVID, or with just finding work in general," says Lancaster.

Time and time again, sources spoke about how important programs like fruit gleaning can be to those in need. But Joe Hanel from Colorado Health Institute and others said that fruit gleaning alone won’t solve the wider food security issues in the state. Rates of food insecurity are higher for young adults, people with less income, rural communities and communities of color.

"I think the main takeaway from our food insecurity report last year was that we live in the land of plenty," he says. "And yet, there's still a lot of hunger. The ultimate solution is going to be for everyone to be able to have a sustainable living wage."

For the time being, there’s other people’s bountiful harvests and those volunteering to glean the leftover fruit.

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This report was produced for the Rocky Mountain Community Radio Coalition, of which KSUT is a member. RMCR includes more than 15 member stations across Colorado and parts of Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, and Kansas.

Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.

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