Wonky vegetables, fruit that’s a tad too small, or speckled, or not worth the expense of harvesting – sadly in our current system, this all goes to waste. But in the fields surrounding Barcelona, Spanish organisation Espigoladors is proving that there is another way.
- When food is wasted, all of the resources that went into producing it also go to waste. There are interventions that we can all make, along the entire food chain. Gleaning is one of them.
“If it weren’t for the time they’ve spent at Espigoladors,” says Mireia Barba, gazing thoughtfully at a crate of twisted courgettes and dented butternut squash, “my children might think that fruit and vegetables come from shops, wrapped in plastic. They might not realise that those lemons grow on a tree and come in various forms.”
Rebuilding a connection between people and agriculture, and raising awareness of growing practices is at the heart of everything Mireia does at Espigoladors, the organisation she set up with two partners in 2014 in response to Spain’s economic crisis. Its aims are threefold: to reduce and ultimately eliminate food loss and food waste; to provide healthy food to those most in need; and to provide a springboard for people at risk of social exclusion who might otherwise struggle to find a way into the labour market.
“I spent a lot of time in my grandfather’s vegetable garden as a child”
‘Espigoladors’ is Catalan for ‘gleaners’, a word with its roots in the ancient practices of collecting leftover food from the fields once the farmers had finished harvesting. The term became better known after the release of French film-maker Agnès Varda’s award-winning 2000 documentary, The Gleaners and I, in which she expands the definition of the term to incorporate those who make a living from, or simply collect, abandoned and unwanted items, and those who include recycled elements in their art.
“I spent a lot of time in my grandfather’s vegetable garden as a child,” says Mireia. “I’d see produce that would be considered imperfect today, but in those days we ate everything, and it was all delicious.” As she grew up, she saw fewer and fewer oversized apples, spotted pears or curiously angled carrots and started to investigate the causes of food waste and think about solutions to it.
The turning point was the financial crash of 2008, when Spain’s unemployment figures spiralled out of control and many people were going hungry. “At that moment,” she says, “the paradox of so much healthy food being thrown away, while so many went without, seemed starker than ever, so I decided to set up a project to address both these things.”
A team of volunteers was assembled, and a handful of farmers offered up their fields. Espigoladors nowadays has more than 1,000 volunteers on its books, and 115 producers, mostly working out of a state-protected ‘agrarian park’ just outside Barcelona. In an unlikely location between the city and the airport, gleaners arrive in teams of 15, three times a week, to pick up unwanted artichokes, cabbage, chard and asparagus, while planes begin their ascents and landings overhead.
So far Espigoladors estimates it has salvaged around 1,000 tons of food in this way, saving 593 million litres of water and avoiding 536 tons of carbon emissions.
A staggering one third of all food produced annually in the world is thrown away, and much of this waste happens in what is known as the primary sector, at the very beginning of the food chain – one of the reasons Mireia decided to focus her efforts there. “Pricing policies and aesthetic issues lead to a lot of food losses in the primary sector,” she says. This was one of the driving factors behind the then-unique model for Espigoladors, and that which differentiates it from, for example, food banks, which direct their collection efforts at the other end of the food chain, predominantly supermarkets.
“If the farmers harvest produce that is in a size, shape or colour that’s out of line with the standards of the marketplace, they can’t sell them”
“If the farmers harvest produce that is in a size, shape or colour that’s out of line with the standards of the marketplace, they can’t sell them. The other difficulty comes when produce is priced at a lower level than the cost of production and harvest, which is why you see fields full of nutritious fruit and vegetables left to rot.”
Beyond the logic of working with farmers, however, is the issue of freshness and quality, something that Mireia feels strongly about. “After the crash there were a lot of food banks, so people weren’t going hungry, but we saw that they weren’t eating well. The food that was given out wasn’t healthy, and that’s one of our central aims, promoting the right to healthy food, which is why we only collect fruit and vegetables.”
As the economic hardships of this year’s pandemic became evident, the Espigoladors team redoubled its efforts to help those most in need, replicating its business model in two new Catalan regions: Tarragona, to the south of Barcelona, and the Maresme coastal zone to the north.
Another of the organisation’s goals – to provide employment and open pathways to future opportunities for vulnerable groups – would also prove more crucial than ever during 2020. One of the sources of funding for Espigoladors is its kitchen, where some of the gleaned produce is turned into preserves and sold all over Spain under the label es-imperfect®. In a single day, the team working there might peel 600 kilos of apples, which the following day will be turned into 2,300 jars of apple sauce.
The range of products changes with the season and might include spreads such as carrot and cumin pâté, plum jam or pumpkin soup, all made with ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables and free of any sort of additives. Many of those who work in the kitchens are those who might struggle to find work otherwise: young people, older women, immigrants and recently released prisoners.
“When you have faith in people, the returns are extraordinary”
“The capacity for transformation is incredible,” says Mireia. “You see people who had zero opportunities six months or a year previously, and thanks to their work as part of this team, they leave here with new confidence and skills. When you have faith in people, the returns are extraordinary.”
She also cites the programme as a way to bring people from the city out to the country and experience at first-hand the food chain from the very beginning. “People don’t understand the work that goes on behind the production of every vegetable and piece of fruit and the resources that are needed to make them grow. They are increasingly disconnected from the origins of the food they eat; the earth and the fields. This lack of connection means that farming and the cultivation of food has lost its social value.”
A key component of Espigoladors’ awareness-raising takes place in schools, via workshops and role-playing exercises to find out how much children know already. With a background as a social educator, this is a part of the job Mireia finds most inspiring. “Often they come up with brilliant solutions to challenges,” she says. “They are entirely free of preconceived ideas and have totally open minds. As adults we have lost this ability.”
But Mireia is beginning to see a shift. In March 2020, a new law was approved in Catalunya that will see the official recognition of gleaning and introduce regulation to control food waste. If all goes well it will be in force by the middle of 2021. Among other things, it will include an obligation for producers to quantify and declare food losses, and will require restaurants to provide containers so that diners can take any leftovers home with them.
As agents for change, the founders of Espigoladors are pushing for this to become a national law. “It’s incredible that the word ‘gleaning’ was barely known just a few years ago,” says Mireia, “and now it is mentioned in a new law. Next we have to get a Spanish law in place.” But she recognises that there is still a long way to go to cause a societal shift towards true sustainability. “When people ask what our ultimate objective is,” she says, “I always tell them that our vision is a world in which we won’t have to exist.”
What can you do?
- Discover more about food waste and gleaning on the Espigoladors website. It could be the first step in starting your own local gleaning initiative!
- How much food do we throw away per year? Find out the answer, along with much more in the latest 5 Podcast below Food waste: Throwing the planet in the bin.
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