Glean Times Ahead
Jun 30, 2016 09:30PM
Annie Bates at Frank Patterson Farms, in Rowan County
Society of St. Andrew’s Gleaning Network Brings Fresh Produce to the Hungry
by Kimberly Lawson
The call to help people is in Aaron Orr’s blood. When he was a kid, his grandfather supplied food to widows living in their neighborhood—string beans, cabbage and tomatoes—from a large garden. Nowadays, at 75, Orr spends time in the fields of nearby farms, picking leftover crops and educating others about where real food comes from. He volunteers for the Society of St. Andrew’s Gleaning Network, and said he gets “a great joy” from the work.
The Gleaning Network is a national nonprofit organization that connects local farmers with volunteers and food banks in a coordinated effort to pick leftover produce and then distribute it to the less fortunate. Gleaning, a term that has origins in the Old Testament of the Bible, means to gather after harvest.
“It’s a really great concept,” says Jean Siers, the Charlotte regional coordinator for the Gleaning Network. “You’re taking food that would go to waste otherwise, and you’re getting it to people. A lot of people don’t have access to that kind of healthy, nutritious, fresh produce—whether they live in a food desert, so there’s no full-service grocery store, or if they’re on a limited income and just don’t have the money to buy it. We try to match the food that would go to waste to the people who need it the most.”
Last year, according to Siers, the Charlotte Gleaning Network distributed 440,000 pounds of food in 17 surrounding counties, thanks to the help of more than 1,500 volunteers. On the state level, more than 10,000 North Carolinans gleaned 3,641,812 pounds of food.
The process to get the food from the field to the refrigerators of the hungry is pretty straightforward. Farmers from nearby counties, including Barbee Farms, in Cabarrus, Muddy Boots Farm, in Stanly and Howard Family Farm, in Iredell, among many others, contact Siers to let her know they have excess food in the fields that either they can’t sell or don’t have the resources to gather.
For example, the farmer of a nearby strawberry farm reached out to Siers last month. “It’s the end of the season and there’s not enough strawberries in the field to make it worth his while to send his workers out to pick those berries,” she explains. The berries also tend to get a little smaller so late in the season, and the farmer intended to plant pumpkins once the field was cleared out.
Siers then contacts her database of volunteers; those who agree to glean use their own gas money to travel to the farms. Gleaners who went to the strawberry farm ended up gathering nearly 900 pounds of fresh berries.
Other volunteers help distribute the food. The harvested produce ends up in larger hunger agencies like Loaves & Fishes or Friendship Trays; in soup kitchens such as Angels & Sparrows in Huntersville; or bagged up and carried door to door in low-income neighborhoods.
“The food can be in the field in the morning and somebody can be eating by afternoon and evening,” Siers says. The program is a win-win-win for all parties involved. Farmers benefit because they save on labor costs to clear their fields; they also get the added joy of not seeing the food they worked so hard to raise rot or get plowed under.
“We just believe that farmers don’t raise food to throw it away,” Siers says.
Recipients get to take home fresh food they might not otherwise have access to. According to Feeding America, 165,170 people who lived in Mecklenburg County in 2014 at times lacked access to enough or nutritionally adequate food.
And gleaners get a life lesson.
Eleanora Miller, 59, has worked with the Gleaning Network in several capacities since it launched in Charlotte in the 1990s. One of the most memorable moments she recalled is from a day several years ago supervising middle school volunteers from the Jewish Community Center. The group was combing the corn fields of Barbee Farms.
“One of [the boys] picks the corn, and I ask him if he has any questions. And he says, ‘Yeah, what do you do with this so you can eat it?’ And I thought, ‘Oh lord, this kid’s never seen corn in the husk.’” Miller went on to show the young boy how to shuck the corn, and once she realized he’d never even seen corn on the cob before, she explained how people cook it. The little boy, empowered with his newfound knowledge, took a bite of the corn right there in the field, and, says Miller, declared it “the best thing ever.”
“We’re not just feeding people,” Miller says. “We’re also educating about where food comes from."
For more information, visit EndHunger.org.
Kimberly Lawson is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Augusta, Georgia. Visit her website at Kim-Lawson.com.