Volunteer Labor: Best Practices for Working with Gleaners

, Produce Safety Technician

Gleaning is becoming an ever-more popular activity on u-pick farms that have more crop to harvest than paying customers and some conventional harvest farms that have unmarketable produce that would otherwise become “walk-by” field rows or orchard blocks. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects farms and volunteers from liability if the donated food isn’t knowingly harmful, but there are still a few things to know as a host for volunteer gleaners to keep end consumers of donated produce safe from unknown microbial and chemical hazards. Here’s some best practices to keep that produce safe and donation ready:

1) Don’t harvest adulterated produce. Often, this means discussing with volunteers which areas are safe to harvest, including the last time you applied a pesticide to the crop and what the Preharvest interval (PHI) is. Know that if you have a crop with visible damage like splits, holes, or healed wounds, volunteers may not be able to tell this environmental damage from wild animal browse as well as your workers, so it’s great to review monitoring records for wild animal intrusion before having them access an area, then discuss with volunteers that if they see bird poop on leaves or fecal matter on the ground, they shouldn’t harvest nearby produce.

2) FSMA Produce Safety Rule requirements for volunteers. For farms that are covered under the FSMA Produce Safety Rule, it’s required that they make volunteers aware of their produce safety policies and provide volunteers with bathrooms and handwashing opportunities before they enter the area to be harvested. Keep this simply to “have you had any signs of fever, diarrhea, vomiting, jaundice, or sore throat, don’t pick drops or poopy produce, don’t sample the crop in the field without washing hands before returning to pick”.

3) Don’t pick drops. Dropped produce that looks perfectly fine is tempting to gleaners, but if you’ve had u-pick customers in those rows, there’s no telling what was on the bottoms of their shoes. Here it’s worth reminding volunteers that it’s a higher likelihood that consumers of this donated produce could be older and immunocompromised from undergoing cancer treatments or having been prescribed an immune disorder medication, and therefore could be more vulnerable to foodborne pathogens than the rest of the population.

4) Clean and sanitary harvest containers. Another best practice is to remind volunteers to visibly inspect the harvest containers they will be using for any broken plastic parts or visible dirt, especially if these are provided by volunteers or a food donation collector. The saying “if you wouldn’t eat unwashed produce out of it, don’t put anything into it” is usually all you have to explain, but if they bring containers from home or re-used waxed cardboard materials, you can remind them to think about this from a food waste perspective, as produce items that touch non-cleaned & sanitized surfaces can pick up plant pathogen spores and easily become spoiled before they get to a food donation consumer.

5) Wash your hands. It’s important to keep the most important food contact surface, harvester’s hands, washed and cleaned with soap and water and a clean towel, not just using hand sanitizer and not drying on their clothing. Volunteers should be informed that every time their hands touch their faces, phones, money, and food, they should know to head to the handwash station. If gleaners are choosing to wear nitrile or PVC (not Latex) gloves, their hands should be washed before putting them on, but they can simply change their gloves if they've touched any cross-contamination risk.