Expanding the Harvest: Vermont Law School Studies How to Get Local Food to Needy

Wednesday, October 08, 2014
This time of year, Heather Bagley cobbles together a handful of volunteers and heads out to the fields and orchards for the leftovers.

Generally, the groups are small, and frequently the faces are the same, but the results are large. They glean tons of fresh produce and fruit and give it to people who need it.

“We picked 800 pounds of apples yesterday in Quechee with just four volunteers,” she said last week.

Bagley and her Lebanon-based Willing Hands nonprofit group have been at it for more than 10 years, and last year alone, they provided almost 60 Upper Valley agencies, food pantries and institutions with more than 30,000 pounds of fresh, nutritious food gleaned from farms and orchards.

“We’re just doing what makes sense. We’re working in the sun and trying to feed people,” she said.

Small, local farms and the practice of gleaning surplus produce from the fields fell out of favor in the 20th century, but both have made a comeback. Advocates for local food systems say more can be done, and a new program at Vermont Law School is investigating ways more food can reach the hungry.

While Vermont and the states along the West Coast have solid gleaning programs, the rest of the country lags behind. More than 33 million adults and almost 16 million children are hungry in America, said Laurie Ristino, the director of the Vermont Law School Center for Agriculture and Food Systems.

But gleaning often is hindered by legal and logistical roadblocks that prevent farmers and other food producers from donating food or make them reluctant to do so, Ristino said. At the urging of gleaning organizations, Vermont Law School launched an effort last month funded by a $759,000 federal grant that could help remove some of those obstacles.

The three-year program is designed to lay the groundwork for a sustainable food network, a nationwide system that helps young farmers afford land and removes liability and food safety concerns that can keep edible, nutritious food from reaching people who need it, Ristino said. It also will recommend uniform tax credits and financial incentives for farmers and others who donate food, and VLS students and faculty will work with successful nonprofit food organizations and learn what works and doesn’t work, information that will be compiled in a database housed in the National Agricultural Library in Maryland, she said.

Even in Vermont, which has a robust agricultural economy and relatively strong gleaning programs, the amount of locally grown food that goes to waste is substantial.

At the Southeast Correctional Facility in Windsor, prisoners in a few weeks will be operating machinery that washes, culls and bags tons of potatoes grown on area farms. The bags will be distributed to food banks for the needy.

The project was launched a couple of years ago by Theresa Snow, who founded in 2004 the Morrisville, Vt.-based Salvation Farms, a not-for-profit agricultural surplus management company.

Snow started the company after working in New York City with AmeriCorps following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, helping people who had limited access to food. When she returned to Vermont, she found that even with the state’s vast agriculture community, people were still going hungry.

Although such organizations as Salvation Farms and Willing Hands are making a dent, Snow estimates that more than 2 million pounds of good, fresh fruits and vegetables is still going to waste each year in Vermont. In addition, there are meat and poultry products that are being lost, she said last week.

And despite the gleaning efforts, there are almost 80,000 people in Vermont who reported being hungry during a 12-month period and about half of those skipped meals during that time because they didn’t have enough money for food, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report updated last month. In New Hampshire, more than 128,000 reported being hungry and almost 59,000 missing meals, the report says.

Gleaning, the ancient custom of allowing the poor into the fields to gather leftover grain and produce after the final harvest, is utilized now by humanitarian groups across the country who gather food from farms, orchards, grocery stores and restaurants and give it to those who need it most.

Although Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act to remove liability from food donors if they ensure the safety of the food, there are still ambiguities in the law that make people reluctant to donate surplus food, said Laurie Beyranevand, the associate director of the VLS agriculture and food center who is overseeing the gleaning aspect of the initiative.

“There are a bunch of different things that stand in the way of a successful nationwide gleaning program. We’re trying to focus on some of the biggest obstacles, such as establishing tax credits or payments to farmers as an incentive and removing some of the liability concerns over food safety and having people come onto a farm — they could be injured or damage the farm property or some equipment,” Beyranevand said.

“There are also concerns over food safety liability when the produce is changed into value-added products, such as soups and sauces,” she added. “The Good Samaritan Act says that the donors are protected from liability if they take ‘necessary precautions’ to ensure that food is safe. (The term) ‘necessary precautions’ is vague enough to give some people enough concern that they won’t donate and that food is going to be thrown out.

“The law says that you are exempt from liability if you take reasonable steps to make sure food is safe. But part of the problem is that there are no good test cases, suits, (to determine what’s reasonable) that have been ruled on by the courts. The law needs to be clarified.”

As part of the initiative, VLS will create a national gleaning resource database online with information in one place that can be accessed by farmers, humanitarian organizations and others who want to make charitable donations of food or start a gleaning program.

The other piece of the program is to help younger people become farmers by reducing the cost of land, Ristino said. Currently the median age of farmers in both Vermont and New Hampshire is low- to mid-50s.

“To have a thriving food economy, you need new farmers and to grow small farms. The cost of the land has become a barrier to new farmers. They can’t afford it,” she said.

The Farmland Tenure Project will help farmers navigate the legal system and remove obstacles from acquiring and expanding farms whether it be by purchase, short-term lease or long-term ground lease, said Jamie Renner, the assistant VLS professor who is heading the law clinic that will coordinate the project.

“Our purpose is to develop a comprehensive legal resource for beginning and established farmers to have better access to the land,” Renner said, noting that through the clinic, farmers will have students to help with research and faculty members to assist with legal matters.

Local farmers have some concern about the liabilities associated with gleaning, but in the end, many in the Upper Valley are trying to help as much as possible, said Pooh Sprague, who owns Edgewater Farm in Plainfield and donates produce to Willing Hands and Salvation Farms.

“I think we live in a litigious society, but everybody (local farmers) is just trying to do what they can to give back. And having an organization like Willing Hands is a real gift because they pick up (the surplus produce). That enables the farmers to do a lot more things to help,” Sprague said.

Willing Hands, which started in 2004 after employees at the Hanover and Lebanon Co-op Foodstores were tired of seeing good produce thrown away and wanted to see the food go to the needy, delivers food from more than 30 farmers and producers to food shelves, pantries and human service organizations in about a 30-mile radius of its home base in Lebanon.

“We’re not too concerned about liability,” said Bagley, who is the executive director of Willing Hands. “I think everybody just does it in good faith and relies on the goodwill of the people who donate to us. I think people are tired of litigation, it boils down to what makes sense.”

For the last seven years, Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford has been providing a quarter-acre plot for Willing Hands to grow vegetables during the summer months, said Cat Buxton, who is the education coordinator at the farm.

“We assist them with some seed and technical advice, and that’s been working pretty well, but allowing volunteers to glean from the fields is a bit tricky, ” she said, adding that the farm also donates additional surplus produce to both Willing Hands and Salvation Farms.

The problem with gleaning is the farm never quite knows when the last harvest will be, and much of the surplus produce is turned into prepared products in the farm’s certified commercial kitchen that are sold year around.

Snow, the founder and executive director of Salvation Farms, said that she is optimistic the VLS program and that the result will help the gleaning effort.

“The national implications are important, but I think it’s going to help us with meeting the needs here in Vermont. We still have a lot of vulnerable people living right here.”

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.


Lebanon-based Willing Hands delivered almost 189 tons of food to the needy, including more than 30,000 pounds of food gleaned from farms and orchards. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported how much food came from gleaning.