A two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, the arid Coachella Valley has been turned into a veritable Eden by farm irrigation. Almost every kind of produce imaginable grows under the plentiful desert sun. But here and across the United States, a startling amount of food never makes it out of the fields. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, unharvested produce accounts for a significant part of the 43 billion kilos of food America wastes each year. But that's changing. Continuing an ages-old tradition, many nonprofit organizations go back into the fields to recover some of what's left behind, to feed the hungry.
With the sun just peeking over the Santa Rosa Mountains, Elena Carillo and her crew of five pull cantaloupes from a tangle of drying vines and put them in blue, plastic crates. Two days ago, the large agricultural partnership that owns this field harvested what it could sell and then turned off the water, leaving beautiful, ripe melons to wither in the field. "But it's still good. And they'll probably end up disking it today or by Monday. So that means all this is going to be plowed under," she says.
Ms. Carillo works for Hidden Harvest, a non-profit organization that that feeds the poor of the Coachella Valley with produce harvested after the harvest. Gleaning, as this practice is known, is as old as the Bible. In ancient times, the poor were allowed to follow the reapers as they worked, and gather up whatever grain or fruit was missed or left in the field. But today, with mechanized harvesters and rapid turnover of fields, gleaners must be quick and efficient.
Christy Porter, Director of Hidden Harvest, says there's only enough time and resources to recover a small percentage of what's left behind. "You look in the back of the truck, there's probably 4,000 pounds maybe of cantaloupe maybe in there right now. You think you've got a lot until you turn around and look at the field and there are thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of 'em still out here," she says.
Some produce is left in the fields because it's too small to sell or too big for its packing crates, but most is bypassed because the farmer couldn't make a profit selling any more at the current market price.
Mark Nickerson is Managing Director of the partnership that own this cantaloupe field and thousands of agricultural acres like it throughout the valley. A strapping man in a small straw hat, he looks like he'd be more comfortable behind the wheel of a tractor than in his company's offices. "This winter we actually bypassed fields because it didn't pay to pick it. The price that we got paid was less than what it cost to pick, pack and sell it," he says. "So you grow it, you bring it to harvest, in this case I can recall mixed leaf lettuce and Romaine where it was a garden to look at and we could not get a penny for it. It makes you sick."
That's where groups like Hidden Harvest come in. Seeing the waste and the hunger in this valley, Christy Porter lobbied farmers like Mark Nickerson to let her group pick some of what was left in the fields. A half-dozen farmers now work with her, largely because she uses paid professional pickers. The dozen or so other gleaning groups across the country use volunteers. "We've had other groups come to us and say we'll come out and harvest your product and they either don't come out or they bring out people who don't know what they hell they're doing and it's a nuisance," says Mr. Mickerson.
The Hidden Harvest crews are mostly immigrant farm workers from Mexico and Central America. They're eager to earn a few extra dollars and take home some fresh produce for their families.
Christy Porter keeps an eye out for food waste wherever she goes, like this bell pepper processing station in another of Mark Nickerson's fields. Orange peppers roll by on a conveyer belt to be washed and boxed while women in plastic aprons grab cosmetically imperfect peppers, called the culls, and throw them in quarter-ton bins. Some culls are processed into sauces and salad bags, but many others are just thrown away because American shoppers are picky about how their produce looks. "There's nothing wrong with these except they've got a little sunburn but they're throwing them away! We'll come and get 'em. I'll talk to Mark like this afternoon," she says.
That evening, across the highway from a huge field dotted with feathery carrot tops, a Hidden Harvest truck turns onto a dirt road. The driver stops at a community of nine or ten tiny, dilapidated mobile homes. The farm workers who live here gather around the truck and carry away heavy boxes filled with fresh melons, peppers, tomatoes and green beans gleaned from nearby fields. Today, instead of filling these boxes with produce for other people's kitchens, they'll empty them into their own.