By JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — In her previous job as assistant director of programs at the Rhode Island Food Bank, Eva Agudelo saw firsthand the demand for fresh produce among those families who relied on food pantries.
In 2017, according to its annual report, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank distributed 2.3 million pounds of fresh produce to local pantries. Some of that produce was grown locally, but the food bank purchased much of it from out of state.
During her time at the Community Food Bank, Agudelo also served on the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, which has been working to address the problem of food waste. From this vantage, she began thinking more about the produce that is wasted before it even hits a plate and how it might be rescued to feed those in need.
Founded in 2008, We Share Hope, an all-volunteer organization based in Warren, works in Rhode Island and Massachusetts to recover surplus food from businesses, manufacturers, restaurants and colleges. The food is used to feed the hungry. It's not an easy task.
"A lot of people have wanted to do it, but those people had other jobs. The work requires a dedicated person," Agudelo said.
This spring, she became a dedicated person. Agudelo’s new venture, Hope’s Harvest, which she launched with a Carter Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Innovation from the Rhode Island Foundation, aims to create a system to rescue food from local farms to meet the needs of Rhode Island’s food-insecure populations by using the age-old practice of gleaning.
Gleaning is the act of collecting surplus crops from the fields. The practice traces its origins to a time when landowners invited peasants onto their fields after the main harvest to take what was left.
According to Agudelo’s rough calculations, between 1.1 million and 1.9 million pounds of fruits and vegetables planted in Rhode Island are not harvested. This annual figure doesn't account for the amount of food that is harvested but not sold because of grading or sorting post harvest.
Agudelo based her calculations on a 2017 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 4 percent of planted fruit and vegetable fields are left unharvested each year.
The reasons for a modern-day farmer leaving his or her crops in the field vary from customers' unwillingness to buy "ugly" produce to extreme weather events. But one of the biggest factors is market fluctuation. For example, when prices for a certain crop fall too low, the cost of hiring workers to harvest a field may result in a loss for a farmer already operating on thin margins.
Some Rhode Island farms have informal arrangements for rescuing food, but, according to Agudelo, doing the work effectively and creating a system-wide food-rescue program requires a dedicated person for consistency and dependability.
“It’s complicated and a logistical challenge that requires a knowledge of how the different stakeholders operate,” she said.
For instance, if a farmer has crops remaining in a field that is ready to be plowed over and planted with a new crop, that farmer can't always muster the workforce needed to harvest this surplus in the short time window.
“Farmers don’t have any flexibility with how to use labor and time, and what’s needed is to fill labor gaps so you can lift the burden from farmers,” Agudelo said.
Agudelo plans to start gleaning in July and has set a goal of rescuing 60,000 pounds of local farm produce in her first season. She recently told ecoRI News that she already has six farms and three food pantries signed up. To do the work she will be using a vehicle provided by Farm Fresh Rhode Island, the fiscal sponsor of Hope’s Harvest, and, like We Share Hope, she will be relying on a cadre of volunteers.
“People are hungry for a connection to the earth," she said. “The world makes us feel powerless right now, but this (work) is immediately gratifying.”
As she gets the program up and running, Hope's Harvest will be offering its gleaning services to farms at no cost.
"We are dealing with a market failure, if there were money to be made off this, someone would already be doing the work,” Agudelo said.
Cable Car Cinema will be partnering with Hope’s Harvest to host a screening of the documentary “The Gleaners and I” on May 22. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion on the topic of food waste. Community members who are interested in volunteering with Hope's Harvest can learn more at hopesharvest.org.