Saving money through gleaning co-ops

When I first began my journey to self-employment, I had lots of extra time, and money was tight. I learned about a local gleaning cooperative, the Renton Community Co-Op. Since my business has grown, I’m no longer able to devote the time to gleaning, but highly recommend it for those with time to spare.

A greengrocer in Ethiopia, 2008, by Jessica W. In exchange for volunteer work (2-4 hours two or three times each month), our family was able to claim a “share” of the glean, which worked out to be between 2-10 banana boxes of dairy products, breads, and produce that stores couldn’t’ sell, or had rejected from the vendor.

Most food banks don’t have sufficient resources to handle many perishables, so the stores must clear these items out fast! In our community, the stores earned “green points” for keeping the items out of the waste stream, and a tax deduction for the value of the items they sent our way–as our co-op is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Since our team had about 40 members, each member choose a day of the week to claim their share (that pick up had to be done weekly).

But three or four days a month, we were responsible for cleaning a whole store, and then sorting the glean into the boxes for each share.

Co-oping like that shared the work wonderfully. There were drawbacks–lots of food that was “past it’s prime” so I added a yard waste bin to my garbage service. Lots of heavy lifting, and you pretty much need to have access to a (very) large vehicle to participate.

However, there were also a number of wonderful benefits.

  • Boxes and boxes of apples which made fantastic applesauce.
  • Three cases of frost-damaged green beans (small grey speckles made them unappealing for sale, but they packed in my freezer and tasted delicious).
  • One year after Thanksgiving, I brought home ten “Tofurky” dinners, which I shared with my vegetarian friends.
  • An upscale natural foods grocery called us in a panic to come clear their entire meat freezer as the motor had gone out. Infour to six hours all of the meat would be inedible, and they weren’t permitted to sell it if their freezer wasn’t functioning. We raced with our coolers and rescued it all.

Every week on Tuesday nights, my friends and neighbors came to my garage to go “shopping” cabbages, loaves of bread, cakes and pies and yogurts on ice. I really enjoyed the social aspect of gleaning–the other women in the co-op were very much like me (frugal, home-schooling, many Christian women as well) it was a wonderful fellowship, and I was able to help my friends and neighbors.

The process saved me about $250 per month, plus provided for 7-10 other families.

Co-ops can be hard to find–some focus on standing crops (such as the Pierce County Co-op), others focus on store gleans (the group I belonged to was a store gleaning organization).

You can try searching “gleaning” organizations in your area, or more modern titles such as “food reclamation programs,” you could also try calling the local Cooperative Extension (usually through the agricultural university in your area) or the Bishops’ Storehouse in your area (a department of the Mormon church)–the Mormon church is fantastically resourceful at sourcing and preserving foods.

Here is a story I wrote about gleaning for GreenSherpa.