The imminent relief of completed midterms bustled towards campus on the Friday before fall break. It was a lovely summer day slipped into late October like a gold tooth. Nine students and I drove twenty minutes off campus to the Lee Turkey Farm Apple Orchard. We squinted as we got out of the cars, and left our jackets inside. A huge white truck on the other side of the parking lot read, in green, in the center, “Farmers Against Hunger,” and beneath it, in italics, “Harvesting for The Hungry.”
We were on a on a volunteer trip planned by Matthew Kritz ’18, Social Justice Chair at the Center for Jewish Life. In a semicircle in the shade of the truck, we learned about the organization: In 1996, a group of farmers decided to do something about the huge volume of unsold produce that went to waste after each harvest. Almost all farms, we learned, grow too much food; the only way farmers can hedge against threats of weather or disease to their crops is to plant more than they will sell. Fruits that drop early, or vegetables that are not reached in the harvest, are typically left out to rot or be plowed over. No average farm has the manpower, resources, or time to go through each piece of remaining produce to see if it is still edible, and collect it if it is. So this group of farmers decided to start an organization to fill in the manpower gaps. The organization began a gleaning project, in which volunteers collect apples, potatoes, cabbage, beets, and other fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be wasted, to donate to those in need.
Today, over fifty farmers across the state of New Jersey participate in the organization. Some have found the resources to harvest their surplus themselves. Others invite gleaners, like us, to collect produce, often using Facebook to connect with potential volunteers. And their efforts are needed now more than ever: in New Jersey, 13% of the population is considered “food insecure,” which means, according to the USDA, that lack of money and other resources limit their consistent access to adequate food. Although the amount of produce that never reaches the supply chain is difficult to estimate, we are just starting to realize how huge the amount is: in 2016, ReFED (Rethink Food Waste through Economics and Data) estimated that 20.2 billion pounds of produce never reaches the supply chain in the US at all. (No clear estimate is made for New Jersey in particular.)
The need for this forgone produce is great and growing. The former First Lady Michelle Obama helped raise awareness of “food deserts”: areas that have limited access to affordable, nutritious food. Particularly in low-income neighborhoods, unhealthy options are cheaper options, and the lack of demand for healthy foods leads directly to a lack of supply in grocery stores. The food gleaned as part of Farmers Against Hunger is distributed directly to 70 different community organizations, particularly those in areas without other access to fresh produce. Gleaned produce amounts to a staggering 1.3 million pounds of food per year, and serves 7500 people per week.
In the shade of the truck at Lee Turkey Farm, Kritz, who is pursuing a certificate in Global Health and Health Policy, read to us from the Bible, which articulates an intricate system of required charity for farmers in the agricultural society of the ancient Israelites. Leviticus 23:22: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field up to the edge, nor shall you gather any gleaning of your harvest. You shall leave them to the poor and to the foreigner: I am the Lord your God.” Then we walked through the orchard toward the Arkansas Black area where we would be squatting under apple trees and examining fallen fruits to look for edible ones.
Kritz told me, as we walked, that Princeton has taken strides in recent years to make itself more conscious of the future of food. The university offers two certificates that can be used to study food supply and sustainability: Environmental Studies, and Kritz’s choice, Global Health and Health Policy.
In addition to academic tracks, I discovered, there is an initiative on campus called Princeton Studies Food, which works to create a “vibrant environment for research and education in food system studies that capitalizes on Princeton’s unique capabilities.” Founded ten years ago by two alums, the group holds conferences and sponsors talks on food sustainability and waste management. The initiative also lists courses that are related to food and its “supporting complex systems (water, energy, microbiology, economics, financial engineering, literature, history, psychology, sociology, religion, policy, politics, etc.),” which include courses in topics ranging from Theory of Groundwater Flow (CEE 581) to Practical Ethics (CHV 310/PHI 385) to Elementary Swahili II (SWA 102).
I later spoke to Smitha Haneef, Vice President of University Services and executive director of Campus Dining. Campus Dining, as part of the larger campus initiatives, has been working to minimizing waste. The goal for unserved food, Haneef said, is to work with the organization Food Donation Connection, which collects and redistributes unserved food to those in need. “Right now we’re in a very humble pilot program,” Haneef said.
Then, the organization AgriArk collects compost (served but uneaten food) from dining halls and uses the organic waste to build nutrient-rich soil. Eventually, Haneef told me, “We want a closed loop system. We want them to use that soil to grow produce, and then we buy back those fruits or vegetables.” Haneef and several professors started the Food and Agriculture Initiative of Campus Dining, which asks, “How might Princeton take a global leadership role in engaging with food and food system and the environment?” Professors and students in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department, along with the Office of Sustainability, are in an ongoing process to answer that question.
The Arkansas Black trees were beautiful in the orchard, and the air smelled sweet from decomposing fruit. Though we were hunched over, we bent over apples, under trees, in dirt that stained our skin, instead of textbooks. We told each other riddles as we worked. I thought—turning over apples, checking for breaks in the skin, putting the good ones in a basket—about the amusing inconsistency between the biblical nature of our gleaning and the quintessentially Northeastern experience of fall in conjunction with apples. I wondered if we were practicing that American religion whose mythology was Johnny Appleseed as much as it was the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” the custom of our primordial gleaner, Ruth the Moabitess.
Eight-hundred pounds of beautiful Arkansas Black apples later, we took off our gloves. Some wiped off their foreheads. We squinted at each other in the sun, smiling. There was something about being outdoors, something about doing a good that was honestly difficult to be cynical about. Giving others something as wholesome as apples. Just honest, American manual labor, for another. We did not pretend it was selfless; we knew that the sun was doing us good. That was the feeling: there was no one who lost when we gleaned. Some got to plant, some to reap, and others to eat apples.