Two weeks ago I went on my first glean! I helped clear a small but overwhelmingly full patch of rhubarb with Lily and two volunteers. HOPE’s gleans rely on the help of community volunteers. During our two-hour glean, it was awesome to talk with the volunteers and also hear their conversations unfold. Through my conversations, I heard perspectives on Middlebury’s political climate, learned about tourism Trinidad, got connected to a Political Science professor, and broadened my understanding on pregnancy food cravings. I initially understood the purpose of gleaning primarily as providing food insecure people with fresh produce and avoiding food waste. This experience gave me a different perspective on gleaning. Gleaning also services those who volunteer! I began to wonder, in what ways can gleaning strengthen a community? Is gleaning an effective and useful platform on which social capital can be produced, accessed, and used in Addison County?

Kids gleaning for HOPE
What is 'social capital'?
In my Human Ecology course last spring semester, I learned about the different forms of capital. From my limited experiences in NGO’s, some humanitarian organizations (ironically but expectedly a lot of non-profits) talk mainly in terms of economic capital: money lost, money profited, time is money, … Social capital are “features of social organizations, such as networks, norms, and trust, that facilitate actions of cooperation for mutual benefit” (Kingsley and Townsend 2006:526). Trust and reciprocity facilitate social networks, cohesion, support, and connection, which form the basis of social capital between individuals in communities (Kingsley and Townsend 2006). Unlike economic capital, social capital is intangible, but it similarly has the capacity to produce material and social benefits such as mobility and social support (Kingsley and Townsend 2006). Social capital allows individuals to access or borrow resources they do not possess themselves through direct and indirect social ties (Glover et al. 2005). This form of capital is present, for instance, when I catsit for my friend, or when neighbors informally watch over each other’s children at the park. Social capital may be measured through the various forms it assumes, such as levels of trust, and density of civic associations (Glover et al. 2005).

I accompanied Lily to a Gleaning Collective meeting recently. Some executive-level people from Intervale, Healthy Roots, Salvation Farms, RAFFL, and Community Harvest were there. It was a pretty loaded meeting… certain individuals were questioning the purpose of gleaning and whether it was worth their time and energy to be apart of the collective. A few people were pretty upset by this. I felt and heard a lot of clashing of perspectives on the role of gleaning in Vermont and in America. (Thank goodness for snack breaks. The peanut butter caramel cookies and cheddar cheese did wonders in temporarily relieving the meeting’s tension.) Those who seemed like they wanted to discontinue being part of the Gleaning Collective said that it was because it costs too much. (Each member organization pays a cost for being part of the collective because they receive assistance on gleaning from Salvation Farms.)

The words “time” and “money” and “budget” were used regularly. “It costs too much”, “it’s not worth our time”, these types of sentiments were either explicitly stated or implied. Towards the end of the meeting, I had a revelation. People that are trying to change their communities need to change their vocabulary! As I mentioned before, social capital is comparatively much much harder to quantify than economic capital, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t employ a social capital framework! I wanted to shake that guy who kept using “projected budget” and “financial loss” and “money” and shout to the group (of intimidating adults) “GUYS, we’re all here because we want to serve our communities, right? So, let’s start using words like ‘trust’ and ‘support’ and ‘human connection’! Instead of measuring the value of gleaning for our community through economic capital, let’s try and better understand the social capital related to gleaning!” I’m not proposing we stop talking about economic capital. I’m suggesting a more holistic approach to assessing community-building/strengthening initiatives. If gleaning is only analyzed in terms of economic capital, then we’re missing out on its potential richness in strengthening our community as a platform for social capital.

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