A few weeks ago, I drove down to Fayetteville, NC to volunteer for Yam Jam, the Society of St. Andrew’s (SOSA) annual sweet potato gleaning. Gleaning is when leftover crops are collected from a farmers’ land – after the farmer has already harvested his crops for market. It's often done by anti-hunger groups and other community organizations; SOSA is the largest in the US that is committed to gleaning as a way to end hunger and food waste. The North Carolina chapter organizes volunteers to harvest sweet potatoes from all over the state during 5 weekends in October and November.

Kasey Wien

Last year, Yam Jam inspired 1,250 volunteers to glean over 85,000 pounds of sweet potatoes from 6 fields. When I first heard this number, I thought that it sounded like a lot, but truthfully I didn’t think about how much food that really is or how many people it can feed.

I only spent 2 hours gleaning one Saturday and must have picked up over 500 sweet potatoes. You can stand still in one spot on the farm and pick up 10 to 20 sweet potatoes that are in plain sight (or slightly buried under the dirt). They’re mostly too small, too big, or too wonky-shaped for the farmer to sell at market price – but there are even perfectly sized ones hidden in the dirt.

Kasey Wien

The reason farmers don’t sell all their sweet potatoes is because farmworkers are paid based on how many perfect potatoes they pick. As a result, they rush through the fields, only picking potatoes that they know will sell while ignoring those with small blemishes and those that require digging through the dirt. The ones that are left could be sold for a lower price, but it's equally cost-effective for the farmer to receive tax credits for allowing organizations like SOSA to glean.

Close to 40% of food in the US today goes uneaten, which is essentially the same as flushing $165 billion and 25 percent of our freshwater down the toilet each year. When we think about food waste, we often think about waste at the consumer and retail level because that is where most of our food is wasted. However, about 7 percent of crops in the US are simply not harvested at all each year. This number can vary widely depending on the crop or season’s climate, but regardless, it is estimated that more than 6 billion pounds of crops are not harvested or not sold each year.

Kasey Wien

If this bothers you, here are some things you can do to help reduce food waste:

1. Volunteer with SOSA, Food Forward, or another anti-hunger, anti-waste organization.

2. Donate produce to a local food bank or food pantry.

3. Try these 15 recipes to help reduce food waste.

4. Check out these 8 companies that are fighting food waste.

Nearly 50 million people in the US do not have sufficient access to healthy food. If you talk to anyone who works for an anti-hunger or anti-food waste organization, they’ll tell you that hunger is not a food production or supply problem, but a distribution problem. Our food system is inefficient if it produces this much waste and leaves this many millions of people malnourished, whether hungry or overweight.