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UNIVERSITY HEAVYWEIGHT PUTS SCIENCE BEHIND OPTIMIZED GLEANING SCHEDULES: Cornell’s Miguel Gómez Talks About How The Produce Industry Can Put Itself On The Side Of The Angels By Reducing Food Waste While Helping The Hungry

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 22, 2015

Professor Gómez searches for ways the industry can do well by also doing good.  So it was no surprise to learn he had turned his formidable intellect to the subject of gleaning.

Professor Gómez has made substantial contributions to the trade by helping to transfer insight gained through academic studies to be utilized by the broader industry. You can see some of the things we’ve written about his presentations for the New York and London Produce Shows right here:

The Renaissance Of The Wholesale Sector — Why Those Who Support 'Locally Grown' Should Support Investment In Market Intermediaries. Cornell University Professor Miguel Gómez Reveals Research Findings At The London Produce Show And Conference

A New Hypothesis On Local: To Boost Sales, Sell It Through Supermarkets … Cornell’s Miguel Gomez Previews His Upcoming Talk At The New York Produce Show And Conference

Cornell Professors To Present At The New York Produce Show And Conference: New Ways of Thinking About Local: Can The East Coast Develop A Broccoli Industry?

Cornell Professor Miguel Gómez To Speak At New York Produce Show And Conference On Fruit & Vegetable Dispute Resolution Corporation

Professor Miguel Gómez Returns To The New York Produce Show And Conference To Unveil A New Study That Points Out A Path For Getting More Produce Into Hospitals

We asked Julie Cook Ramirez, Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to find out what he is focused on for this year:

Miguel I. Gómez
Associate Professor
Charles H. Dyson School of
Applied Economics and Management

Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Q: All of us at the New York Produce Show and Conference are excited to have you back in the micro-sessions, and looking forward to this year’s talk. What will be the subject of your discussion this time around?

A: I will be talking about improving food bank gleaning programs for fruits and vegetables. Gleaning is an ancient practice, dating from biblical times, where farmers and large landowners allowed the poor to gather crops in the field after the harvest.

In contemporary times, gleaning is generally performed by organizations (often using volunteers) that donate the goods to food banks or pantries serving the needy. Gleaning in modern times may also refer to farm-food donations out of farmers' packing lines and storage houses.

Q: What have you and your team at Cornell done in the way of researching this topic?

A: This past year, we started new research focusing on what food banks can do to increase produce offerings through successful gleaning programs for fruit and vegetables (F&Vs). My team worked in collaboration with Deishin Lee and Erkut Sonmez from Boston College, and Xiaoli Fan from Cornell University.   

Food banks are increasingly turning to gleaning as a mechanism for simultaneously reducing food loss and alleviating food insecurity.

A number of gleaning programs, in many cases supported by local and state governments, were created in recent years as a result. Our research contributes to the many ongoing efforts currently underway to run successful F&V gleaning programs.

Q: Why is gleaning such an important topic for the produce industry today?

A: Recent research suggests that recipients of food assistance exhibit increased rates of obesity and related health problems in the United States. At the same time, most of the food donated to and distributed by food banks consist of processed/packaged foods, which often are calorie- and fat-dense.

Meanwhile the USDA tells us that about 6 percent of fruit and vegetables are left unharvested in the field. The primary goal of our project is to identify ways in which food banks can increase offerings of fruits and vegetables to food-insecure people by running effective gleaning programs with local farmers.

At the same time, gleaning fruits and vegetables can contribute to reduce food losses — a top priority for government and for the produce industry.

Q: What is one of the big challenges with this course of action?

A: Running successful gleaning programs presents challenges for food banks. Managing gleaning operations can be challenging, because the arrival of gleaning opportunities (i.e., farmers calling to announce gleaning opportunities) and the attendance of gleaner volunteers (altruistic citizens who donate their time to glean fruits and vegetables) are both random.

Our most recent research tackles this problem. We developed a rigorous model that can be used by food banks to establish optimal scheduling of gleaning trips, taking into account the characteristics of farmers and the pull of volunteers. By optimal, we refer to the food bank’s ability to glean and distribute as much F&V volumes as possible during harvest season.

Q: Food waste is obviously a problem on the mind of a lot of people in the industry. Do you feel industry influencers and companies are doing enough to help?

A: Yes! The produce industry plays a key role in successful gleaning operations, and indeed, F&V donations through gleaning increased in recent years nationwide. According to the American Farm Bureau, New York farmers donate nearly 3.6 million pounds of F&Vs annually to food banks through gleaning.

In 2012, the California Association of Food Banks' gleaning program (Farm to Family) distributed 127 million pounds of fresh produce to 41 food banks around the state. Similar gleaning programs operate in Arizona, Texas, and Ohio — all with strong support from the industry. However, much more can be done to grow gleaning programs and contribute to alleviate malnutrition among food assistance recipients.

Q: How does “cause marketing” play into these efforts?

A: This is a very good question, which allows me to discuss the relevance of donations of F&Vs through gleaning to the marketing strategy of growers, packers and shippers. As its name suggest, “cause marketing” connects businesses with a cause, which is typically linked to a nonprofit organization.

The benefits of employing cause marketing are twofold. One, the business is helpful and works for the common good in the community; and two, the business is benefiting economically. Economic benefits come from improved customer relations, positive public relations, additional marketing opportunities, and making more money.

With this in mind, it is a no-brainer that businesses in the produce value chain can benefit from F&V donations by incorporating “cause marketing” principles in their marketing strategies.

Q: Scheduling of gleaning appears to be an issue, and I know it’s one of the things you will be discussing in your talk. Can you explain why it’s such a problem?

A: As I mentioned previously, food banks often rely on a pool of volunteers to run a gleaning program. Meanwhile, the availability of gleaning opportunities depends to the vagaries of F&V production and on the willingness of growers, packers and shippers to donate. There is a lot of uncertainty to manage in a gleaning program as a result.

Our research can help a food bank select a gleaning schedule that matches gleaner volunteers to the gleaning opportunities in the most effective way.

Q: Please give us an example of how this works. Are you talking about having schedules that match various growing regions and their windows of opportunity for gleaning?

A: For example, when we apply this model to the gleaning program of a food bank in New York State, we find that scheduling gleaning trips between 3 and 4 times per week maximizes the volume of F&V gleaned. Scheduling too many trips (e.g., every day) allows the bank to take advantage of more gleaning opportunities, but the number of volunteers per trip is too low to ensure enough volume per trip.

Conversely, scheduling too few gleaning trips (e.g. once or twice per week) ensures to have enough volunteers to glean enough volume in each trip, but the bank may miss many gleaning opportunities. Thus food banks need to balance gleaner volunteer availability with the amount of calls from farmers announcing gleaning opportunities.

Q: For those attending your presentation, what’s the main takeaway you want to resonate with people?

A: My audience will consist of a variety of businesses in the F&V supply chain. I want them to walk away from my presentation with the idea that they can simultaneously do a wonderful service to society and benefit their businesses by donating F&V to their local Food Banks through gleaning.

Q: What are you personally looking forward to about the show this year?

A: Participating in the New York Produce Show is one of the highlights of my industry outreach activities of the year. I look forward to learning about recent trends and the future of the industry. I also look forward to participating in the new Foundational Excellence program with Cornell.

*****

We are not sure we see the utility in conflating traditional gleaning — meaning harvesting from the farmer’s fields after the farmer is done harvesting — with produce donations off the packing line.

It is tempting to see the food left in the field as “waste” and therefore free, but so much of the cost is packing and transportation that if we are also going to organize teams of people to volunteer, one wonders whether we couldn’t simply purchase a whole lot more produce that is already produced through these efforts by asking the same volunteers to just work a few more hours at their regular jobs and send in some money.

The religious school the Jr. Pundits attend hosts an annual gleaning. It certainly makes us all feel good, but is it really the most efficient way to get food to the poor? That is a question we haven’t seen really addressed.

We also wonder about food security issues now. Many farms today won’t allow the FedEx or UPS guy  vetted, uniformed, with a certain purpose  onto a field or in a packing house. Yet we are going to let hundreds of unvetted people roam around the fields?

When Jr. Pundit Primo, aka William, had his Bar Mitzvah, he had to explain the meaning and significance of his Torah portion.  By chance, his portion dealt with gleaning. Here was his take on the issue:

…coming from a family that has long been in food  bakers on my mother’s side and produce on my father’s side  the part of my portion that most resonates with me is the admonition commanding the farmer to allow the gleaning of his fields. Indeed, as part of my Tag 13 program, I elected to go gleaning in a local field as my Mitzvah day project. This part of my portion translates in this way:

When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow — in order that the Eternal your God may bless you in all your undertakings.

When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.

When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.

Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; Therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.

Of all the many mitzvot in this portion, there are only two occasions in which they are accompanied by the phrase: “Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.”

I believe this speaks to the little appreciated nature of these commandments.

On first reading, they sound like generalized obligations to help the poor, yet they are remarkably specific. For example, the commandment is that if you “overlook a sheaf in the field,” one should not go back to get it. This is different from saying one should intentionally overlook good produce and leave it in the field.

What we are actually admonished here is to seek ways to help those in need, but without hurting the conduct of commerce or others who have worked hard to achieve success. In effect, we are warned against being so greedy that we would hurt ourselves by engaging in business practices, such as going back and forth over a field to find every stray grape or olive, when such efforts would be expensive and wasteful.

So these gifts that Torah orders the landowner to give, though deeply valuable to the poor, are actually a gift to the landowner as well. For the commandment reminds us to keep our focus on efforts that produce value and not begrudge that others might benefit a bit from the fruit of our labors…

Gleaning, food waste… these are all hot topics now. Professor Gómez, though, is an economist and this Pundit will want to ask how he views these efforts in the context of Comparative Advantage.

We pay migrant laborers relatively low salaries to harvest. How can it make sense to have doctors and lawyers and engineers do this work instead? Is this really a sensible way to help the poor and hungry? Or does it just make us feel better?

Come to New York and let us all analyze these issues and how best to proceed.

You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference here.

You can see the new Foundational Excellence program, where Professor Gómez will also speak.

Hotel rooms in the headquarters hotel are available if you e-mail us here.

And travel discounts are available here.

We look forward to seeing you there!

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