Jo Caird heads to a Kent orchard to meet a group of modern gleaners, doing their bit to avoid food waste and to provide additional fruit and veg for the hungry

You’d never guess that this orchard, on Selson Farm on the eastern edge of the North Downs, has already been harvested by a team of professional pickers. To the untrained eye, each little tree still looks heavy with apples, baubles shining green and red in the bright sunshine.

Yet these are just what’s left of farmer David Bradley’s apple crop, the fruit that is too small, too big, too green or with too many marks to meet the exacting cosmetic specifications of the supermarkets he supplies. He estimates that around 15 per cent of his apple crop is left unharvested in an average year and it’s a source of real frustration for him: “The reality is that the goodness inside the apple is just the same.”

Great British Life: Julie Kirby (c) Sheradon DublinJulie Kirby (c) Sheradon Dublin

That’s why Bradley has invited volunteer gleaners from Deal With It, an environmentally-focused community group based in the coastal town, onto his farm this sunny morning: he would much prefer his apples to be eaten than leave them to rot into the ground. The gleaners will make that happen, picking some of that remaining 15 per cent and distributing fresh fruit to those in need via community kitchens, food banks and primary schools across East Kent.

Gleaning, the gathering the crops left over after the harvest is done, dates back thousands of years, possibly to the beginning of agriculture itself. There are references to it in the Old Testament, with God directing farmers to leave the “gleanings” of their crops for the poor as an act of charity. In this country, from around the 16th century, the rural poor relied upon gleaning to supplement their household incomes, with women, children and the elderly in fierce competition for leftover cereal crops in particular, which were used for baking bread and feeding animals. It was only the introduction of mechanisation, which meant farmers were able to harvest crops with less wastage, that saw gleaning tail off in the first half of the 20th century, entirely disappearing by the 1950s.

Great British Life: Before the glean (c) Sheradon DublinBefore the glean (c) Sheradon Dublin

Now it’s back, but with a modern twist: volunteer groups like the one I’m picking apples with today, taking to fields, orchards and farmyards to glean not for themselves, but for those in need, and to help address the challenge of food waste. It’s not just an issue in Kent, but one faced all over the UK, with 10-16 per cent of food grown in this country in a typical year wasted before it even leaves the farm, according to research by the campaigning charity Feedback Global. As well as supermarkets’ cosmetic specifications, overproduction built into the food system to enable farmers to guarantee supply is a contributing factor, as is supermarkets cancelling or changing orders at short notice.

READ MORE: The long history of apples in the county of Kent

The scale of the 21st-century gleaning movement is difficult to judge – there’s no national authority for this hyper-local, community-driven activity. But Feedback, which set up a network of gleaning groups in five English regions in 2012, estimates that the dozen or so groups it has directly supported gleaned around 640 tonnes of produce in 2021.

Great British Life: Charmaine Jacobs with apples ready to distribute (c) Sheradon DublinCharmaine Jacobs with apples ready to distribute (c) Sheradon Dublin

For Charmaine Jacobs, a lecturer from Folkestone, the attraction of gleaning is that it “brings people together”, she says. “There's so many differences between us: age, social background, ethnicity, but we just bond as a gleaning family and I love that. I love being out in the field and the cohesion and that oneness towards a mission.”

In 2022, the Deal group, alongside their counterparts in Hythe, picked and distributed around 52 tonnes of fruit and vegetables. Their regular mid-week gleans attract mainly retired folk, with weekend gleaning days drawing a more diverse crowd. The gleaning calendar varies according to farmers’ harvests – weather can have a massive impact on the quantity of produce available. For the East Kent groups, picking typically begins with cauliflowers, cabbages and other leafy green vegetables in March, these crops continuing through spring and into early summer. July is cherry time, followed by damsons and early apples in August, then pears and more apples into the autumn. October is a big month for squash. There’s rarely any actual picking from December through February, but the gleaners are kept busy over the winter sorting through enormous piles of potatoes too large for the supermarkets.

Great British Life: A volunteer gets busy (c) Sheradon DublinA volunteer gets busy (c) Sheradon Dublin

Potatoes, explains retired project manager Stephen Wakeford, Dea’s volunteer organiser, are always well received: “Everyone knows how to deal with a potato. It's a baseline for a lot of organisations. Everything else is a plus.”

The group picks to order – this week it’s 310kg of apples and 265kg of spuds – so although there’s still plenty more fruit on the trees, Wakeford calls time after a couple of hours. We load several bags of apples into Wakeford’s car (other members of the group will deliver the rest of the haul, dropping apples and potatoes at their local food banks, primary schools and to charities like Age UK) before setting off in convoy to Our Shop, Ramsgate.

Run by the community interest company Our Kitchen on the Isle of Thanet, Our Shop is a mini-market offering healthy food at a fraction of the cost of that available in supermarkets. It serves a minimum of 90 customers a day, four days a week, catering to parents who want to feed their children healthily but lack the money or the knowledge to do so.

Great British Life: Volunteers tie bags ready for distribution (c) Sheradon DublinVolunteers tie bags ready for distribution (c) Sheradon Dublin

'What I tell them to do is cruise by us first to buy what they can get cheaply, then go and top up with what they have to buy at the supermarket,' Our Kitchen founder Sharon Goodyer explains. 'I'm a great believer in keeping things simple. We just give the people what they want and need: good food at an affordable price.'

Gleaning isn’t a silver bullet for the problem of food waste on farms – campaigners want to see a complete overhaul of the food system, one that will design waste out of altogether. But it does offer local people to make a difference, and enjoy themselves while they’re at it.

Great British Life: Our Kitchen on the Isle of Thanet (c) Sheradon DublinOur Kitchen on the Isle of Thanet (c) Sheradon Dublin

'If we had a responsibility to clear the fields,' says gleaner Julie Kirby, a semi-retired seamstress, 'we'd feel we'd failed. If we feel that anything that we can do helps to reduce the scale of the failure, then that’s good.

'We're providing something which is at no cost to anybody, neither the farmer nor the user and we're not paid for our time here so it's all a gift throughout the chain, which I think is just brilliant.'