• Anna Mowris

Gleaners are Combing Farm Fields to Feed the Newly Hungry

Delivering surplus produce to Americans who have been unable to feed their families has become an urgent need in light of the pandemic.

Alicia Garlic, a high school sophomore, along with more than a dozen others spread out in order to social distance - a retired schoolteacher, a Census Bureau employee, a young mother with her grade-schooler in tow - sit in the blazing sun for hours gleaning. These individuals volunteer for Farmers Against Hunger, a program of the New Jersey Agricultural Society.

Gleaning is a hallowed agricultural tradition, defined as gathering anything left over after harvest. In the US, it has long been the province of religious groups inspired by the ancient Jewish story of Ruth, written at a time when gleaning was still a protected right for the poor. In recent years - a new emphasis has been placed on supporting local agriculture, reducing waste, and improving the nutritional quality of food in hunger relief - a fresh wave of organizations have taken to the idea with hundreds willing to volunteer to help their cause.

With the coronavirus pandemic, a new demand for gleaning arose, with mile-long traffic jams at food banks and farmers forced to plow under their onions when food-service contracts seemingly disappeared overnight.

Gleaning groups are now at the front lines of those trying to help to stabilize the nation’s food supply, leveraging one problem - an overabundance of unsellable crops - to help solve another: rampant hunger.

“When you see how long the food lines are, it just kind of makes people realize that now we have to find the food that is already here,” said Virginia Baker, the part-time gleaning coordinator for Farmers Against Hunger. “We already have it. We just have to be able to get it into the hands of the people who need it.”

Virginia Baker finds growers willing to donate their surplus crops, manages an ever-growing list of volunteers itching to help, and drives the contributions to a wholesale produce market where her organization rents a corner of a warehouse refrigerator to store them.

Although each of her tasks has been slowed tremendously by the need to maintain social distancing, sanitize, and don protective gear, Baker believes the payoff is worth it. The current gleanings are the best they have ever been, often prime products rather than just leftovers or throwaways, and they are able to do so much good in the span of as little as a few hours. For example, in just two hours at Specca Farms Baker and her group bagged upwards of 500 pounds of spinach for local food pantries.

Baker’s organization plans to recruit more growers and has won a grant from the Princeton Area Community Foundation to pay three local farmers to grow an acre of food that Harvest for Hunger will gather later this year.

However, Baker’s organization is far from alone in its efforts. Gleaners around the country tell similar stories of herculean feats, all hastily came together to help fulfill the fast-growing need.

For example, in San Luis Obispo, CA, the food bank program GleanSlow has pivoted from staging fruit-gleaning parties to working in the fields at farms that used to sell their produce wholesale to food services.

At one farm, “we were picking from bushes that were loaded with berries that hadn’t been touched,” said Emily Wilson, the group’s program coordinator, with a note of disbelief. “A thousand pounds of blueberries.”

Another group called After the Harvest in Kansas City, MO, is fielding call after call from farmers who need volunteers to pick up harvest that they are unable to sell. “Early on it was spinach, arugula, beautiful red-leaf lettuce, kale,” said Zach Callaway, a gleaning manager with the six-year-old organization. “You know, high-end stuff that usually went to restaurants.”

That’s all in addition to its regular summer gleaning at the farms that surround the region, Mr. Callaway said; by late August that usually involves 10 trips per week. This year the group is also getting edible crops from the Kansas City botanical garden and the gardens at public schools.

When the pandemic began After the Harvest considered suspending its gleaning program altogether. Now Mr. Callaway is hoping his organization will get grant money for a few more trucks to transport food.

“We’ve gotten every grant we’ve applied for,” said Barbara Eiswerth, the founder of the 17-year-old Iskashitaa Refugee Network in Tucson, AZ, whose gleaning crews include refugees from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They usually take part of what they pick for their extended families.

Eiswerth’s volunteers used to meet three days a week and pile into a handful of cars to go pick. “Now with Covid-19,” she said, “the seniors can’t come, the interns can’t come, and many of the refugees are elderly or immunocompromised.”

Eiswerth has since been able to recruit more than 70 new volunteers who go alone or on family-only gleaning trips, helping to collect food from bakeries, distributors, and concessionaires on the state’s shuttered R.V. campsites. Those donations are then delivered to 11 apartment complexes where many of the area’s refugees live, as well as to several hunger relief agencies.

With help from Forager, an online agricultural-sales platform, and Covid-19 grant money from ReFED, a food waste-focused nonprofit, her organization was able to deliver 2,100 pounds of produce to the quarantined Indigenous community in Window Rock, AZ, the capital of the Navajo Nation - a whopping six-hour drive each way.

In Orlando, FL, the Society of St. Andrew, a United Methodist Church gleaning group with programs across the Southeast, Ohio, and Indiana, has been equally busy.

The pandemic couldn’t have arrived at a worse time for Florida vegetable farmers, coronavirus hit them in the middle of their busiest season, supplying to both the local tourist economy and rest of the country with produce from September to May. In early March, the Society of St. Andrew’s office was getting call upon call from growers who were already selling far less than they had expected, or whose contracts with the region’s convention centers, hotels, and distributors had fallen through.

“He said, ‘It’s the best crop I ever had. It doesn’t pay to harvest it,’” said Barbara Sayles, the group’s regional director. “‘You better bring your people out to pick.’”

The need for food relief was still so acute that Sayles began cold-calling farmers who had won bids from Farmers to Families Food Box, a new program from the United States Department of Agriculture that pays them to donate unsold produce to hunger relief programs. Many growers, Ms. Sayles said, had no idea whom to give it to or how to get it there. Along with several other groups — Food Forward in Los Angeles, Boston Area Gleaners in Massachusetts and other Society of St. Andrew teams — her office is helping farmers distribute, sort, and fill those boxes, which must contain a mix of vegetables. In Florida, Sayles is working with the local arm of Service Trades Council Union to give boxes to its members who had been furloughed by Walt Disney World.

These are among the greatest success stories that were shared at the online meetings of the Association of Gleaning Organizations, based in Salt Lake City. Part of its mission is to help its 200-ish members learn from their colleagues, said Shawn Peterson, the association’s founder. The ultimate goal is to collect as much food as possible from the nation’s fields.

Though these numbers are not completely accurate, Peterson said, two studies done last year - one by North Carolina State University and another by Santa Clara University - determined that about a third of all edible crops grown in the US went unharvested.

In all honesty, gleaning gathers an extremely small fraction of what is surely billions of pounds of produce, most of which are simply worked back into the soil. It also yields far less than other surplus-food programs, where donations from supermarkets and distribution hubs are measured not by the garbage bag, but the tractor-trailer.

Regardless of this, gleaning is still important, Peterson says. “What gleaners do really well is work within the spaces missed by more traditional food recovery and hunger programs,” says Peterson.

Gleaners can pick greens from a farm on 24 hours’ notice, set out free freshly picked boxes of tomatoes at a rural library, or deliver pints of raspberries to a food pantry lacking a refrigerator, on the same day it gives out food

This is why Harvest Against Hunger, in Seattle, added gleaning to its larger food-rescue programs, said David Bobanick, it's executive director. Today, the 38-year-old organization also runs a national gleaning incubator program through AmeriCorps VISTA that aims to create operations that are tailored to meet the specific needs of their region.

This coming year, that should also entail financial support for farms that donate the food, says Bobanick. His organization is one of several that have recently won funding to broker arrangements between hunger relief organizations and farmers who can’t sell their crops.

This is also a goal of the sales platform Forager, which will use the rest of its ReFED grant to introduce a new tool that will connect gleaning groups to agencies with funds to buy food. Most of the money will go to the farmer, but a portion will also go to the gleaning group to cover the costs of distribution, said Erica Merritt, who is coordinating the effort.

The idea arose when the obvious became clear, she said: “Gleaners are literally in this unique position between the farms that can’t sell their food and the people that are hungry.”

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