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Gleaning for Health: Stocking Food Bank Shelves with Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

November 19, 2018 | California

Nov 19, 2018

Although Merced is in the middle of California’s breadbasket, the Merced County Food Bank received few donations of fruits and vegetables, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Each year, the food bank distributes 4.4 million pounds of donated food to more than 100 neighborhood food pantries.

The Solution

In 2017, the Merced County Department of Public Health SNAP-Ed Program worked with the food bank to develop a solution. They developed a system for gleaning, or harvesting, produce from 12 local farms, a city farmers’ market, and 20 residential backyard gardens. To recruit volunteers and build the gleaning network, food bank staff spoke with farmers and asked for volunteers at community events. The food bank created a web site to promote the gleaning program and sign-up volunteers and farmers. Early on, food bank staff found that while many people expressed interest in the program at first, they did not take the extra step of signing-up online. To solve this problem, food bank staff had volunteers register on paper forms at outreach events. Program staff later entered the volunteer information into the web site.

“I grew up gardening and preserving food, and my first job was picking strawberries. I’ve dreamt of harvesting the extra produce on farms and backyard trees in Merced County since 2013. People in the valley work very hard in agriculture, and as a dietitian, I want to make sure they can eat well. Thankfully, the food bank was able to start a gleaning program and provide fresh local produce to their food pantries.”
—Stephanie Russell, Project Coordinator Merced County Department of Public Health

Backyard gardeners registered for “backyard” gleaning. A few neighborhood gardeners with trees in their front or side yards allowed volunteers to glean their fruit. After the gardeners saw what a good job the food bank volunteers did, they let them harvest produce from their backyard, too. The food bank is optimistic this effort will blossom as the neighborhood gardeners share their successful backyard gleaning experiences with other gardeners.

Today, the Merced city farmers’ market donates produce on a regular basis. Food bank staff visit the market weekly to build their partnerships with vendors and farmers and to request donations. The food bank gives each farmer a donation crate and collects the crates at the end of the market day. The gleaned produce is then stored in and distributed from the food bank warehouse.

Because the risk of volunteer injuries or liability issues can serve as barriers to a gleaning program, the food bank and its partners provide:
Safety and liability training for volunteers.
Easily-to-identify team shirts for all volunteers and staff to wear while gleaning.
Information about health and food quality guidelines.
Clear communication between staff, volunteers, and farmers about where, when, and what produce can be harvested.

“It truly is a stress reliever to know that you are picking something that has a purpose.”
—Earla Anderson, Merced County Food Bank

The Results

Between April and September 2017, 100 volunteers and food bank staff gleaned:

  • 845 pounds of produce from the City of Merced’s farmers’ market.
  • 99,975 pounds of produce from local farms.
  • 171 pounds of produce from residential homes.

Sustaining Success

The food bank will continue to host the web site to sign-up volunteers and promote gleaning events. Food bank staff are committed to making gleaning events a positive experience for volunteers, families, and community members. One of the benefits of the gleaning program is the food bank’s engagement with the community. A surprising benefit has been that volunteers and food bank staff report that gleaning is a relaxing experience.

The Merced County Department of Public Health plans to analyze the nutritional contribution of the gleaned produce. The public health department will also continue providing nutrition education and liability and gleaning information to its staff and community partners.

Stories from the Field

The California Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) aims to inspire and empower underserved Californians to improve their health and the health of their communities through healthy eating and active living. The program facilitates this through education and community change in partnership with many others. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) shares this story to highlight a snapshot of some of the California SNAP-Ed work conducted by local health departments and partners across this Golden State.


CDPH funds local health departments, 57 county and three city health departments, to conduct SNAP-funded obesity prevention programming across the state. The UC CalFresh Nutrition Education Program, California Department of Aging, and Catholic Charities of California, Inc. also fund local agencies to conduct programs that align with the California SNAP-Ed mission. The California Department of Social Services oversees the collective California SNAP-Ed work.

Expanding our Reach

We hope these community stories inspire you to envision how to create a healthier tomorrow!

This article was submitted by the Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Branch of the California Department of Public Health. For more information, please contact Stephanie Russell.