08/01/2016 04:22 pm ET Updated Aug 02, 2017

Gleaning: Combining Two Wrongs to Make a Right

Co-authored by Erkut Sonmez, Visiting Assistant Professor at Boston University, Deishin Lee, Assistant Professor of Operations Management at Boston College's Carroll School of Management, Miguel I. Gómez, Associate Professor at Cornell University's Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and Xiaoli Fan, Research Assistant at Cornell University's Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Incongruous Dual Problems

The coexistence of food waste and food insecurity as societal ills in the U.S. is profoundly incongruous. It seems implausible that up to 40% of food fit for human consumption is wasted, while there are 14 million households that are food-insecure (i.e., unable to reliably access sufficient food for all members of the household). Yet here we are in this surreal conundrum.

What Causes These Problems

Many factors contribute to the incongruity of systemic food waste and food insecurity. From farm to fork, there is a supply chain in which food, which is perishable, is wasted at every step. Process inefficiencies in the supply chain and market inefficiencies all contribute to the wastage. Even at the farm level, perfectly edible, healthy food is often left on the field because of limitations of mechanical harvesting, labor shortage, or inadequate market conditions for selling the crop.

At the same time, food insecurity is not simply insufficient calories, but inadequate nutritional content in the diet. To achieve food security requires not only enough income to buy healthy food such as fresh fruits and vegetables, but reasonably easy access to it -- a significant challenge for families that live in so-called food deserts. Food banks and food pantries have long provided support for food-insecure families. However, for various (logistics related) reasons, the offerings tend to be primarily processed and packaged food.

Combining the Problems to Create a Solution

A source of vexation is that the two concurrent problems of food waste and food insecurity are obviously the solution to each other. Indeed, gleaning is the process that connects these problems for mutual resolution. However, as is often the case in managing an operation, what is obvious in theory is challenging in practice. In ancient times, gleaning was operationalized as large landowners allowing the poor to pick the fields after the harvest. Nowadays, gleaning organizations mobilize groups of volunteers to harvest the fields when farmers donate their crops.

In a typical supply chain, where suppliers are chosen for their consistency and the workforce is hired based on experience and reliable performance, challenges already abound. However, in a gleaning operation, add on top of that donations from farmers that arrive in an adhoc manner and volunteers who attend gleaning trips based on their own schedule, and the challenge of consistently supplying healthy food to food banks and pantries is even further magnified.

Operationalizing the Solution

The good news is that gleaning organizations are managing to convert the goodwill of farmers and volunteer gleaners into a supply of healthy fresh food for food-insecure households. Experienced gleaning organizations such as the Boston Area Gleaners have developed farmer and volunteer networks and established managerial systems to reap the available crops in a timely manner. These gleaning organizations have already rescued an impressive amount of food for the purpose of alleviating food insecurity. For instance, in 2015, the California Association of Food Banks' Farm to Family program, the largest gleaning program in the nation, distributed 150 million pounds of fresh produce across the state. Similar gleaning programs in New York, Arizona, Texas, Ohio, Arkansas, Kentucky, Colorado, and Massachusetts recovered millions pounds of fresh produce through gleaning programs over the recent years.

Continuous Improvement

Best practices can be shared among gleaning organizations to help each other mitigate food insecurity in their respective regions. An example of such a collaboration is the joint effort between the Food Bank of the Southern Tier in New York, the Boston Area Gleaners, and our research team consisting of members from Cornell University and Boston College. This team used a simulation-optimization framework to help gleaning organizations set various operating policies (such as gleaning schedules and volunteer allocations) to increase the amount of food gleaned*.

Although the food waste-food insecurity conundrum still persists, community-focused programs like gleaning are creatively harnessing resources to effectively address these societal issues. The beauty of gleaning is that it brings the community together -- Lots of people, each doing a little bit, combined with efficient coordination and management, can make a big difference.

* Sönmez, E., D. Lee, M.I. Gómez, and X. Fan. 2015. "Improving Food Bank Gleaning Operations: An Application in New York State" American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 1-14 (doi:10.1093/ajae/aav069).

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