Gleaners: Saving Dinner from the Dustbin

“Staggering” is the word the EPA uses to describe the amount of food wasted in the United States. Americans throw out about a quarter of the food and drinks they buy. Planted fields go un-harvested; supermarkets throw out fresh fruit every day. Almost 40 percent of all food in the U.S. is squandered. This food ends up in landfills where it creates methane—a potent greenhouse gas. This happens while here in Linn and Benton counties, one in five families depends on the food pantry once a year or more.

Hence the Gleaners. Gleaners are volunteers with low incomes who scout out food that would otherwise go to waste. Linn Benton Food Share, the food bank for Linn and Benton counties, has 14 groups of gleaners who last year provided more than two million pounds of food to low-income households—food that would have ended up in the landfill. Here in Corvallis, the Mary’s River Gleaners find good homes for apples that would have rotted on the ground, un-harvested rows of lettuce, or day-old bread that would otherwise be tossed in the dumpster.

“We go out into fields and we glean food at different farms throughout town,” said Cookie Johnson, the group’s coordinator for almost five years. “They’ll call us and say, ‘We’re having a glean out at so-and-so’s farm,’ and we all meet out there and start picking vegetables.”

The food doesn’t all come from fields; Albertsons, Safeway, Winco, Costco, the Great Harvest Bread Company, the First Alternative Natural Foods Co-op, and others places around town welcome the gleaners. The racially diverse crew seeks out everything from cereal and milk to yogurt and cakes that would otherwise rot in a landfill.

“It’s all good stuff,” said Johnson, who took a course on how much you can stretch an expiration date. “They don’t give us rotten food; it’s all usable. Milk, you can use that four, five days after it’s gone out of code. We learn all these little tricks.”

It’s hard work recovering the food. The group’s 820 gleaners volunteer their own time and gas money to pick up—or pick—the food, as well as deliver it to others with low-incomes. Gleaners who are able to must volunteer at least eight hours a month.

“I don’t want anyone, especially in my gleaners, to feel like they’re begging,” Johnson emphasized. “None of us get paid; we supply our own gas, our own cars, and our own time.”

The food is distributed every Friday and Saturday to the group’s members, the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, shut-ins, and whoever else qualifies for the low-income register. The gleaners are welcomed by their “adoptees” for bringing both a basic necessity and a chance for social interaction.

“One of the best things is going into someone’s house and delivering a bag of food and seeing the smile on someone’s face,” she said. “It’s a lot more than just giving food. We try to run our gleaners here like a family.”

According to Johnson, the group has helped her as much as she’s helped it. Since moving to Corvallis from Bend six years ago with her husband Jeffrey, the group has provided both joy and purpose—plus, quite literally, a reason to live.

“About 12 years ago, they said I had only five years to live,” she said. “I know for a fact that it’s due to the gleaners, because I’m not thinking about myself, I’m helping others—that’s a big thing.”

The Mary’s River Gleaners is always in need of volunteers. For more information, call Cookie Johnson at 541-497-9019 or visit the group’s Facebook page.


By Jen Matteis