Saving food in the field: unattractive leeks can also be used.

The Cologne store "The Good Food" sells what is discarded elsewhere or left behind during the harvest. On the road with the food rescuers.

Successful post-harvest: Nicole Klaski, Alica Humm and Leonie Grob in the field Photo: Thekla Ehling

In the drizzle, three women trudge across a harvested leek field. It doesn’t take long before one of them gets stuck in the muddy ground with her thick hiking boots. Nicole Klaski records this with her smartphone, laughing. The 37-year-old is the founder of The Good Food, a store with two branches in Cologne that sells only rescued food: expired spreads, baked goods from the day before, crooked vegetables and fruit with bruises. All food that would find no place in a normal supermarket.

Alica Humm and Leonie Grob, the other two women in the field, are two of more than eighty volunteers who work at The Good Food. They stand behind the sales counter in the store, drive goods from the warehouse to the store on a cargo bike, or go on so-called farm tours around Cologne, three times a week. Here they collect unharvested or damaged food that can no longer be delivered to supermarkets.

Their workday begins at eight. Sometimes they just have to load ready-packed boxes into the truck. But when it comes to post-harvest work, it can be more strenuous. On this wet and cold Tuesday in early March, Humm and Grob have already taken care of carrots, cutting off the slightly moldy greens with the knives they always have with them on the farm tours.

Then, as every Tuesday, they continue to the Lammertzhof farm in Kaarst. Organic farmer Heinrich Hannen gives an overview of what’s in store, then a transporter takes him to the leek field that was harvested with machinery the day before. But some stalks were too firmly stuck in the ground, others are too small for the machine. Normally, they just stay in the field and rot.

Too crooked, too small, too rotten?

Alica Humm, Leonie Grob and Nicole Klaski don’t have to spend long looking for the leeks: There are stalks sticking out of the ground everywhere. It’s not easy to get them out of the muddy ground. In addition, there are small piles of leeks that have already been sorted out during the mechanical harvest: too crooked, too small, too rotten. Klaski reaches for the knife, squats down, pulls off a few dark green outer leaves, revealing a crisp stick of leeks. It’s hard to imagine not eating it.

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Klaski herself never thought she would one day be responsible for more than eighty volunteers and two stores. She studied law and has a master’s degree in human rights. In 2012, she went to Nepal for some time with an NGO and experienced there in the capital Kathmandu what it is like to live sometimes without running water and electricity. For Nicole Klaski, it was a kind of awakening experience: "That’s when it struck me how naturally we use resources in Germany and also waste them," she says.

Back in Germany, she became an active volunteer for the foodsharing association, where she worked with supermarkets to ensure that expired food didn’t end up in the trash can. At the end of 2015, Klaski had the idea to go one step further: from the markets to the producers. Even then, Heinrich Hannen had organized three post-harvest days on his farm, when he let people into his already harvested fields.

"My motivation is to grow good food and lots of it. It already hurts me when some is left lying around," Hannen says. A lot of the food left lying around, he couldn’t sell himself. Especially not when a harvest has turned out well: the greater the harvest yield, the lower the price and the more meticulous the sorting out has to be. "The trade then demands that," says Hannen.

Every week there’s something to save

Klaski and Hannen agreed that there should be such post-harvest days more regularly. Since then, Klaski has been going to his farm every week, because there is always food to save: cucumbers in the spring, romanesco in the summer, beet in the fall, Brussels sprouts in the winter. Nicole Klaski initially sold the post-harvest food in a Cologne hostel to finance the expenses for the next tour.

Muddy business: A post-harvest is not an office job Photo: Thekla Ehling

But people showed so much interest in the knobbly potatoes and two-legged carrots that Klaski turned volunteering into a career in 2017 and opened The Good Food store. "We hit the spirit of the times and saw a lot of support," Klaski says.

In 2020, she added a second store. She now makes enough money to pay herself and two other permanent employees. The rest of the income is invested in the two stores, logistics and rental car.

But the dedication of the many volunteers shows: The Good Food does not have a completely profitable business model, nor should it: "Ultimately, the jobs are built on something we want to abolish and avoid," says Klaski. She means: on waste. "We don’t want to get too comfortable there and create a market for it."

Potatoes with little quirks

After working in the field, the three women still have three large wooden crates full of potatoes waiting for them at the Lammertzhof. Some of them have been eaten by beetle larvae, a fungus could grow in them, they have to be sorted out. On the other hand, the potatoes that only have a few green or rotten spots can still be processed well.

That’s still good! Photo: Thekla Ehling

"The parts can be peeled away or cut off. Only, no one wants to do this work today," says farmer Hannen. And industrial processing of these potatoes has also been almost impossible so far: the machines cannot adjust to every green spot, at least not yet.

While Alica Humm and Leonie Grob sort the potatoes, Nicole Klaski walks around and records everything with her cell phone. She posts the photos and videos on her Instagram channel. "It’s a good opportunity to share with people and spread the word," Klaski says. "We almost have an educational mission."

When the three women finally leave the Lammertzhof after about three hours of work, they have eight full vegetable boxes in the van. But a lot of good food still remains on the farm – there is simply more than they can manage.

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