VIII. Lessons from USDA AmeriCorps Summer of Gleaning - A Case Study

How the USDA AmeriCorps Summer of Gleaning Worked

The Summer of Gleaning was based on the philosophy that government should provide energy, vision, and some limited funds to serve as a catalyst to increase citizen efforts.

Summer of Gleaning projects worked in partnership with literally hundreds of locally based anti-hunger groups, youth service corps, churches, food banks, and food recovery organizations, that are currently recovering food in 20 States. (See Appendix E.)

These AmeriCorps partnerships created collaborative efforts that brought together farmers, agribusinesses, food distribution organizations, special event organizers, large institutions, and restaurants to recover food that would otherwise have been thrown away.

Overall, Federal funding was minimal. The AmeriCorps members received a small living stipend that allowed them to meet basic living expenses as they provided full-time community service. If they successfully completed the program, the AmeriCorps members earned an educational voucher that may be used to partially pay for college, graduate school, job training, or to pay back already existing student loans.

The program was based on the "volunteer generator" model in which a handful of compensated AmeriCorps members recruit numerous noncompensated volunteers to help implement large-scale tasks. The 88 AmeriCorps members in the summer program recruited over 1600 noncompensated community volunteers who helped pick, sort, deliver, and prepare the recovered foods.

There were a total of 22 Summer of Gleaning projects operating 12-week, 480- hour programs that were administered by USDA agencies (Rural Development, the Farm Service Agency, and the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service), with technical assistance and support provided by the USDA Food and Consumer Service and the USDA National Service staff.

The 88 AmeriCorps members in the program served in teams of two to six members each, organizing and implementing gleaning projects that rescued ripe fruits and vegetables from farmers' fields that would otherwise have gone unharvested and either been left to rot in the fields or plowed under. The fresh produce was then distributed to needy families and individuals in the local area, emphasizing the community-building aspect of the AmeriCorps program. In addition to gleaning produce directly from farmers, several of the summer projects focused on efforts to rescue prepared and perishable foods from local restaurants, resorts, bakeries, and other businesses involved with food service.

Perhaps most importantly, the food recovery programs that were begun through the initiative of the USDA AmeriCorps members now continue to operate in every one of those communities, even though the AmeriCorps members are no longer there.

Key Issues Identified During the Program

The following issues have been identified by staff and project partners. They do not represent a comprehensive approach to food recovery issues, but do provide one case study about key challenges and solutions that can affect many food recovery projects:

Creating and Implementing Partnerships

No gleaning project can operate without effective local partnerships, and the AmeriCorps USDA Summer of Gleaning projects were no exception.

In general, effective partnerships appear to have been easily established between the Federal agencies responsible for administering the gleaning projects and local nonprofit organizations.

USDA staff provided preliminary guidance and information to potential project managers and, wherever possible, tried to facilitate links among groups that sometimes were not even aware of each other's existence. Comprehensive lists of local groups, such as those in Appendix B of this guide, were provided to local project managers at a training program and through subsequent mailings in order to give them a starting point. However, in many cases we found that this type of information was not needed, because the project managers were already familiar with the types of services available in their own communities. Most of the project proposals came in to USDA headquarters with letters of commitment from a wide variety of partners, saving a great deal of start- up time for the short summer projects that could be better used contacting farmers or other donors and getting right to work on the actual gleaning/food recovery activities.

In creating partnerships, it is essential to delineate the responsibilities of each participant in the project. Each partner needs to know exactly what it will be expected to contribute, and what it can expect the others to do. This must be done at the beginning of the project, to eliminate confusion and possible collapse as the project proceeds.

Formal written agreements are not always necessary, but letters of commitment are a very good idea. Administering agencies should also be prepared to replace partners in the event that some logistical problems arise; a contingency list is advisable.

Once a project develops to a level where there are several key partners involved, regular contact, either through meetings or conference calls, should be sustained to avoid confusion and to be sure that all of the necessary tasks are being completed and all commitments are being fulfilled.

Some of the summer projects were slightly less effective in implementing good partnerships because they did not always recognize an organization's real potential as a good partner. Every group, organization, and company that brings added value, however small, to the project should be treated as a valuable partner. USDA noted that thanks and recognition, even in small gestures, often generated increased support for the project, and played a critical part in the local communities' interest in continuing the gleaning projects beyond the summer.

General Donor Identification Issues

Obviously, finding donors for any sort of food recovery program, whether it involves farm and field gleaning, or is designed around a prepared and perishable food rescue operation, is absolutely critical. Without the donors, there is no food to be recovered.

USDA learned through the AmeriCorps Summer of Gleaning projects that, because this is such a critical element, contacts with potential donors must be one of the first tasks accomplished if a program is going to succeed. Furthermore, if donors are carefully identified, solicited, and maintained during the gleaning project, they are much less likely to drop out of the program as it progresses, and their peers who declined to participate at the outset, for whatever reason, are more likely to offer their own contributions as well.

Two types of food recovery programs — farm gleaning and perishable food rescue programs — have a number of common concerns related to donors.

For example, both types of donors are going to be concerned about liability questions, such as, "What if someone gets sick from the sandwiches I donate because they weren't refrigerated properly after they left my restaurant?" or, "What if someone trips and falls while gathering cucumbers in my field?"

To respond to these questions, the person who is soliciting donations should be familiar with the appropriate Good Samaritan laws, both the new Emerson Food Donation Act that establishes minimum standard Federal policy about liability and immunity in every State, and the particular State statutes that may provide additional protection for donors and gleaners involved in food recovery programs.

Another concern to keep in mind is that most people in the food production business, whether they are growing fresh food to be sold to commercial processors or preparing it to be consumed right away, are trying to make a profit. Solicitors should be very tactful and careful not to present their requests in a way that would threaten the donor; what is being offered instead is an opportunity to make good use of food that would not have been sold and would otherwise be thrown away.

The project manager and/or staff members should make every effort to speak with someone at the potential donor's place of business who is actually in a position to make the decision and the commitment to participate in the project.

All donors need to be pampered, to a certain degree. They need to know that a food recovery program manager is aware that if it weren't for the donors' contributions, there would be no program. Project managers must remember that donors are partners in this effort, who need to have a real stake in the project's outcome. They need to be approached carefully, and once engaged, they need to be treated as valuable members of the process from the beginning to the end of the project. Including donors on an advisory council that is set up to oversee and sustain a gleaning project is a good way to accomplish this, as it underscores the donors' relevance to the project. Finally, donors should always be thanked for their contributions as publicly as possible (or at least to the extent that they are comfortable with such expressions of appreciation).

Identifying Donors for Farm Gleaning Projects

The experience with the 22 summer gleaning projects in 1996 indicates that the State and county USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices can be essential partners in any successful gleaning project. (These local offices can be found in most phone books in the blue government pages under "Federal government — Agriculture Department.") FSA is the entity that knows, on a daily basis, what is being grown by farmers in a given area, how the crops are coming along, when they will be ready to be harvested, and what sort of prices are likely to be paid for various foods.

The FSA County Directors are also a valuable resource because the farmers generally know and trust them. This confers legitimacy and credibility to the gleaning project that might otherwise take months to establish. In general, the summer projects administered through FSA were able to identify their donors much more quickly, and rarely lost donors during the course of the project period. Therefore, it is a good idea for all non-FSA project managers to establish a working partnership with FSA first, thereby saving considerable time and effort that can be better devoted to other aspects of project management. FSA is a critical conduit to the farmers, especially when another agency is administering the gleaning project.

State departments of agriculture can also be extremely valuable resources in helping to identify donors for gleaning projects. These agencies are not only closely tied to the individual growers — possibly even more than the FSA office — but are also usually the offices that approve and establish farmers' markets and organize the State and county fairs. Furthermore, the importance of involving the appropriate State and local agencies in a project such as this cannot be overstated, as such involvement helps to build a sense of community and cooperation at the local level.

Several summer project managers suggested that a database be set up that identifies and tracks the vital information that makes a gleaning project possible. Such a database would include information such as who is growing what food, who is likely to have excess crops, who might be willing to donate that excess to the gleaning project, when the different crops will be ready to be harvested, how long it would take to glean all or part of a field, the best method(s) for harvesting a given crop, and pick-up schedules for the harvested food being donated. The database can then be cross- referenced to a similar database that indicates the names, addresses, needs and preferences, and capacities of the recipients or recipient agencies, as well as names of volunteers who can be called on to gather the crops from the farmer's field.

Before going out to ask a farmer to donate, the project manager needs to anticipate questions that the farmer is likely to raise. Keep in mind that a farmer is going to have some unique concerns that will need to be addressed, and it is important not to make a commitment that will be impossible to keep, such as an absolute guarantee that no one can sue him if injured while on his land. (Anyone can file a lawsuit against anyone else. The "Good Samaritan" laws just set some guidelines for who would win such a lawsuit.) Be prepared to discuss the liability provisions in detail; have a copy of the "Good Samaritan" law, or a well-written summary of its provisions, to give the farmer.

Initiate a discussion of who will be responsible for providing the containers for the gleaned produce: Will they be provided by the farmer, or will they have to be brought in? What are the farmer's concerns about having all these unknown people on the farm? Does the farmer have ground rules that need to be identified up front (such as no use of the restroom facilities or the telephone in the house, don't drive vehicles in certain areas)? One final issue that will be very important to most farmers is how well- equipped the gleaning project is to handle produce on very short notice. If a project needs 3 or 4 days to make all the arrangements to get out to a certain farm, the farmer is not likely to want to participate, because he or she may not know how much there is to donate until it becomes necessary either to move the excess off the field or to plow it under so another crop can be planted.

It is important to remember that producers are professionals whose time and product are valuable. Neither should be wasted by promising to glean and then not showing up, or showing up at the wrong time or place, or showing up with the wrong type of gleaners (e.g., Boy Scouts, when the producer specifically said no children).

Identifying Donors for Food Rescue Projects

Most of the lessons that USDA learned about identifying and soliciting farmers as donors for field gleaning projects can be easily adapted and applied to commercial entities as potential donors for food rescue programs. In addition to knowing the applicable Good Samaritan laws, the project manager should also be conversant with State and local health department restrictions and requirements that would affect the donation of prepared foods, as well as basic food safety procedures for handling and storing of the donated items.

If the project is working in partnership with an established food bank, especially the larger ones with extensive recipient agencies, the manager should be very careful not to design a process that conflicts with, duplicates, or disrupts the food bank's regular donor list. One of the most frequent difficulties encountered during the summer projects was related to this issue, when the AmeriCorps project contacted a potential donor who was already a regular donor for an established food recovery system. As a general rule, new food recovery efforts should be extremely careful not to compete with pre-existing efforts.

The best way to convince potential donors to participate in a food rescue program, after reassuring them about the liability issues, is to offer them an arrangement that is as easy as possible. This means that once the donor has agreed to contribute allowable leftovers, the food rescue project would be prepared to do just about everything that the donor does not agree to do, such as arrange a pick-up schedule that is convenient for the donor, provide the transportation, and provide the resources needed to pick up the food and take it away.

Identifying Recipients

Obviously, recovering the food is only half the job; the second half consists of finding someone who can use the food once it has been recovered. In virtually every community in America today, there are families and individuals who lack the resources to obtain good quality, nutritious foods at prices they can afford.

Donated food recipients are not always homeless, or substance-abusers, or irresponsible, or even unemployed; they simply have to make some very hard choices about how to spend whatever funds they have. Unfortunately, food, particularly wholesome, healthy food, is not always one of the things they choose. Therefore, the task of identifying potential recipients who can benefit from a food recovery project is rarely difficult; the difficulty is in identifying those who will benefit most from such an effort.

Based on USDA's experiences with the AmeriCorps gleaning projects, it is much simpler and more efficient to establish a firm partnership with a local food bank or distributing agency that already has a regular clientele or recipients. This can be accomplished effectively at several levels. For example, a food bank, such as the Atlanta Community Food Bank or the Greater Chicago Food Depository, distributes recovered food to smaller, grass-roots types of organizations that then provide direct meal services or boxes/bags of food to needy families and individuals. When a project works through such an arrangement, it can devote more of its time, energy, and other resources to acquiring the food itself, because the food bank has a system in place to evaluate and allocate the recovered foods to those facilities that can use it best. This process works especially well in urban areas, by keeping the food recovery project managers from running the risk of competing with the larger organizations or of unnecessarily duplicating their efforts.

On the other hand, in some of the smaller communities, and particularly in rural areas, gleaning projects work best by delivering their produce directly to a shelter or soup kitchen. Project staff seem to find this approach more gratifying because they maintain a degree of control over the process a little longer, and can see first-hand the results of their efforts. As with the system described above, however, the final recipients of the recovered foods have already been identified by the local facility.

The third option—by far the most time-consuming and labor-intensive—has individuals and families solicited and identified directly by the gleaning project itself. Project managers work with local social service offices, and/or advertise the project to develop a pool of eligible recipients. Sometimes this is the only option available, in instances where relatively small amounts of food are expected to be recovered, or in the small rural communities that do not have facilities to provide emergency meal services or food assistance to those in need.

One additional benefit to this approach is that the project can establish its own criteria and requirements for eligibility, such as a requirement to attend a class on proper handling, storage, and preparation of the food that is received. But this option should be used only for projects that cannot find a local or regional food bank to work with as a partner.

Collecting the Food

Collection and transportation of recovered food were by far the most expensive aspects of the summer gleaning projects. Suitable containers to hold the produce as it was picked and delivered were absolutely essential. The farmers who donated the produce could not be expected to provide these containers because they represent a significant expense. Several projects were very successful in obtaining donations of boxes and bags for the gleaned food, but this is an area that needs to be budgeted carefully. Arrangements to obtain containers also need to be made early in the development of the gleaning project, because by the time the food is ready to be harvested, an adequate supply may not be available.

Transporting the Food

Although the purchase of containers for the gleaned food should be considered and budgeted as a significant expense, transportation is also a major expense. There are actually two separate issues: transportation of volunteers, and transportation of the food itself.

  1. Transportation of Volunteers. Although this issue did not arise consistently in all 22 projects, there were a few instances where it became a critical issue. USDA does not recommend that gleaning project managers commit to providing transportation for volunteers as a regular practice unless they already have the capacity to do so. With sufficient time allowed in the project development stage, contingency plans for transporting volunteers to and from the project site (farm, warehouse, soup kitchen, etc.) should be included in the initial project design.
  2. Transportation of Food. Because freshly harvested produce is perishable, it must be transported to the delivery point as quickly and as safely as possible. Refrigerated trucks are always preferable, but are often prohibitively expensive. Regular (nonrefrigerated) trucks can be used as long as appropriate precautions are taken to ensure that the safety of the harvested produce is not compromised. Most of the summer projects incurred major expenses in renting trucks to carry the food that was gleaned either to a food bank with a cold storage facility or directly to a soup kitchen that would be using the food immediately. However, some projects were able to transport the gleaned/rescued food at no cost whatsoever, because they had established partnerships that provided this service. For example, the project in the State of Washington was able to use the Emergency Food Network's (EFN's) 40-foot refrigerated truck because EFN was one of the primary partners there. Another example of creative partnership was in Illinois. The Illinois National Guard provided trucks and drivers for the duration of the program.

Storing the Food

Storage of food recovered through the AmeriCorps gleaning projects was not a large problem. Those projects that did not deliver the food directly to its final destination, such as a homeless shelter where it was usually used immediately in that day's meal preparation, made sure that it was delivered to a food bank with an appropriate warehousing facility. Some concern was expressed by one of the project managers that when the latter procedure was used, the AmeriCorps project staff had no way to be sure that it was used promptly.

Communicating With the Public

Communicating the activities and successes of gleaning projects through the media helps generate support for food salvage efforts — and finding volunteers and new sources for food recovery. Media coverage also increases awareness and could lead to further use of food recovery efforts.

Salvaging excess food for distribution to the hungry has an innate high human interest factor, a key component in attracting media coverage. Initial project plans should incorporate a communications strategy outlining media goals and indicating specifically how they will be achieved. If time and staff resources are problems, a volunteer with media experience may be identified to spearhead media efforts, such as the developing of a list (with fax numbers) of news and assignment editors of print and broadcast media in the area. A partnering organization may also provide public relations assistance.

Planning media events with the sole purpose of attracting coverage is essential. Some suggestions include planning a kickoff ceremony, designating a Day of Food Recovery, or inviting a well-known personality or official to visit the project site. Maybe there is a novel aspect to a project that would draw media attention, such as a grade school class—or some homeless veterans—volunteering to glean for a day.

A week before the event, a media advisory should be sent, indicating the who, what, and where of the activity, daily and weekly, with a contact and telephone number. The day before the event, someone should telephone the appropriate editor at the local newspaper(s) as well as assignment editors at local television or radio stations. The day of the event, a news release goes out emphasizing its success.

Here are some other recommendations for communicating with the public:

Recruiting and Managing Volunteers

Volunteers must be recruited, trained, supervised, thanked, motivated, and thanked again. Volunteers can be recruited from the membership of all project partners, as well as through the media. Recruitment efforts must be high-profile and persistent.

One of the best ways to manage volunteers is to be organized, so that the volunteers' time is not wasted. Telling people to show up at a field at 9:00 and then not getting to work until 10:00 can significantly reduce the number of volunteers next time.

In several projects, such as Baltimore, Maryland, and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, the most reliable and satisfied volunteers were the people who were also the recipients of the food that was gleaned. Another extremely successful and innovative approach was to get volunteers from State correctional departments' alternate sentencing projects and minimum security inmates. The precautions and requirements for this approach were extensive, but project managers who tried it seemed to believe that the extra effort was worthwhile in light of both the quality and quantity of work accomplished.

Finally, some of the projects relied almost exclusively on the AmeriCorps members to glean the produce or arrange to have it harvested and picked up at the farm, rather than to facilitate the process by recruiting volunteers to get the job done. This area will need special attention for future gleaning projects, but it can likely be resolved with a slightly longer planning/start-up period and more direct treatment of the issue during the preliminary training and technical assistance phase of the program.

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