Gleaning Efforts Benefit Local Food Banks

Looking for community service projects? Consider gleaning, or harvesting, fresh produce for your local food banks or food pantries.

| January/February 2015

  • Fruit gleaned for local food banks by the volunteers with Food Forward in California.
    Photo courtesy Rick Nahmias; Food Forward
  • Reaching for the fruit left at the top of a tree.
    Photo courtesy Rick Nahmias; Food Forward
  • Volunteers for the Florida chapter of Society of St. Andrew bag up potatoes for distribution.
    Photo courtesy Barbara Sayles; Society of St. Andrew Florida
  • During the annual ‘Day in the Grove’ in central Florida, more than 300 people helped harvest.
    Photo courtesy Barbara Sayles; Society of St. Andrew Florida
  • The gleaned produce headed to an Orlando food bank to be distributed to 700 other agencies.
    Photo courtesy Barbara Sayles; Society of St. Andrew Florida

The call, last-minute and tantalizing, was one that could have frustrated gleaning coordinators. A farm owned by a local Shaker community had a field with excess sweet corn; could someone harvest it for the local food bank right away? Barbara Lauze at the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn, Maine, was used to working the phones — not the fields — but there was no one else available, so she and three co-workers traveled to harvest the field on a hot and muddy day.

“It was not the way I would choose to spend my Saturday,” Lauze says.

But in four hours, the four office workers had managed to pick some 2,900 pounds of corn for the food bank. The only real frustration, says Lauze, was that there was so much more left in the field.

U.S. food banks receive infusions of fresh produce thanks to networks of volunteers who pick leftover harvests from farm fields, citrus groves and backyards across the nation. It’s called gleaning, a practice that dates back to Biblical times, when farmers used to leave their outside rows unpicked for the hungry to harvest when needed. Now, it has a few modern twists, as social media is used to coordinate harvests, and gleaning efforts sometimes cross state boundaries to redistribute the nation’s food wealth.

The largest gleaning network in the nation is coordinated by the Society of St. Andrew, or SOSA, based in Virginia. Founded in 1979 as an extension of the work by the United Methodist Church, the now nondenominational SOSA seeks to harvest excess crops to help feed the estimated 50 million undernourished Americans each year, says David McCleary, coordinator for the group’s Indiana chapter. SOSA has chapters in the lower 48 states, run mainly by volunteers who pick and distribute the crops.

“We run a very simple business,” McCleary says without a hint of irony, even though on the day of his telephone interview, he had just spent seven hours in triple-digit heat dropping off corn to food relief organizations throughout the state.

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