Contributed by Ashley Quan, Ontario Association of Food Banks
Gleaning – the process of gathering crops after the main yield has already been collected – is an age-old practice that traces its roots back thousands of years to the Old Testament. It was a protected right throughout the Middle Ages, the subject of a famous painting by Jean-Francois Millet, and was still a common practice as recently as the end of the second World War.
With the public consciousness being raised around the issue of food waste and the enormous costs to society of disposing of a third of the food that we produce, many farmers are looking back to this ancient practice as a way to both reduce food waste and feed people in need at the same time.
On farms, it is common to plow unpicked crops back into the ground, enriching the soil with organic matter, which is certainly a better fate than putting it into a landfill. However, it’s not just the food that is wasted, but the enormous amount of water, energy, fertilizers, and labour that goes into planting and growing food meant for human consumption.
Compared to household food waste, which represents more than fifty percent of all food waste, field food waste is a mere nine percent of the total. While seemingly insignificant, field waste still represents a significant volume of food that could be diverted, especially when you consider there are 336,000 people who visit a food bank in Ontario each month.
This is why we started our Community Harvest Ontario program, which was funded by Monsanto for three years (2013-2016). We connected corporate groups eager to make a difference in their own communities with farmers who have crops they could not harvest due to limited labour, and sent the food gathered to their local food banks.
One of the last gleaning sessions of the season we held this past year was with farmer Jay Reesor of Reesor Farms in Markham. We brought in a group from High Liner Foods to pick some excess sweet corn, and it was an eye-opening experience for them. Jay was a great host, and went into an in-depth explanation on the history of gleaning, the anatomy of a corn plant, and the best way to pick ears off the stalk.
The group collected an amazing 1,350 pounds of corn, which was donated to North York Harvest, a member of the Ontario Association of Food Banks. Reesor Farms has a long-standing relationship with this food bank and continues to support them today.
The Community Harvest Ontario program is just one example of the many ways that Ontario’s amazing farmers support the work of food banks. We have official programs set up with Ontario’s agricultural groups to provide food banks with a steady source of protein (like meat and eggs) and milk, and regularly receive generous donations from farmers of fruits and vegetables. Thanks to Ontario’s agricultural community, over half the food we distribute each year is fresh or frozen!
This is why we worked hard to introduce the Ontario Food Donation Tax Credit, which gives farmers a 25% tax credit on the fair market value of their donated product. Ontario was the first province to introduce a tax credit of this kind, but many other provinces are following our lead. This tax credit is not only a small “thank you” to our farmers, but also helps offset some of the costs of donating, making it a win-win for everyone!
We hope to continue to grow the amount of local food we distribute in the coming years so that Ontarians in need can access more fresh, wholesome food at their community food programs – and we couldn’t achieve this goal without the support of Ontario’s amazing agricultural community.