Sunday, October 17, 2010

Gleaning with the Society of St. Andrew

Everyone knows that a healthy diet includes ample fresh fruit and vegetables. But providing fresh produce to feed the hungry in this country is very difficult. Why?

Much fresh produce requires harvesting right when it’s ripe, needs special storage conditions, and needs to be used within days of being harvested. Food banks, food pantries, USDA commodities programs, and feeding programs have limited ability to store and distribute fresh produce. For example, many food pantries are open only once a week, so if produce becomes available on a Tuesday they may not be able to keep it until the pantry opens again the following Monday.

But at the same time, depending on the crop, an estimated 12% to 40% of fresh fruits and vegetables produced in the U.S. are wasted every year. Why?
  • Some produce is unsold from wholesalers, grocery stores, and farmer’s markets.
  • We Americans are fussy about what we accept at grocery stores. So produce that is oddly-shaped, oddly-colored, surface blemished, too big, or too small is routinely rejected by growers, harvesters, packing facilities, and grocers.
  • Harvesters (both human and mechanical) leave some additional percentage of the crop in a field, due to it being overlooked, dropped from trees, or simply more than the crew can handle in the time available.
  • Crop success is unpredictable, so sometimes there is an excess of certain items. Prices may drop so far that it isn’t worth the farmer’s expenses to pick it. These excess crops are routinely dumped in landfills or plowed under by growers so the field is available for use the next season.
  • Sometimes whole truck-loads of produce are rejected by the receiving grocery store for reasons such as lack of proper bar-coding or it being slightly over-ripe when it arrives.
Enter the Society of St. Andrew, a nation-wide nonprofit organization that’s working "to bridge the hunger gap between 96 billion pounds of food wasted every year in this country, and the nearly 40 million Americans who live in poverty." Volunteers glean nutritious produce that would otherwise be wasted and give it away free of charge to organizations that will use it to feed hungry Americans.

Gleaning is a very, very old practice, even mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy:  "When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow." (Deuteronomy 24: 21 NRSV)

We visited the Society of St. Andrew’s headquarters in Big Island, Virginia, where we met with Executive Director Mike Waldmann (left) and Communication Director Mike Hickcox. We learned that the Society of St. Andrew was founded in 1979 by two Methodist ministers who wanted to do something about hunger and Americans’ wasteful lifestyle. (Read about their history.)

Today, the Society of St. Andrew gleans produce in 22 states and delivers to all lower 48 states and Washington DC. They operate no warehouses and no formal distribution system. Instead, they rely on regional directors, who organize gleaning events with their huge list of 878 local growers and other food sources, and volunteer gleaners, who capture and deliver the produce to local organizations that can use it while it is still fresh. In 2009, 34,624 volunteers gleaned a total of over 26,500,000 pounds of food and delivered it to 3,400 nonprofit hunger-relief organizations.

Gleaning is a great way for all sorts of groups – school groups, church groups, kids, mixed-age groups – to help end hunger in America. Little or no expertise is required – after all, we volunteered as apple gleaners! Our group consisted of 9 other adults, including Virginia Gleaning Program Director Sarah Ramey (on the right).

Mr. Gross had generously allowed us to glean in one of his Bedford, VA, orchards. When we arrived, it looked as though we would find few apples. But as we looked more closely, we found lots and lots of good apples on the ground and in a few trees that had been skipped. By the end of about 90 minutes, our group had filled 60 bags of apples, or about 720 pounds – that’s enough for about 2160 servings of apples!

We went along with Sarah to deliver 58 of these bags of apples to the Salvation Army in Lynchburg, VA, one of the few agencies that’s available to receive fresh produce on the weekend. The other 2 bags were destined for 2 local shelters.

Check out their website for information on other great programs run by the Society of St. Andrew, such as the Potato and Produce Project and Harvest of Hope.

1 comment:

  1. This is a fascinating post! I was at St. Matthew's yesterday for a concert, btw, and saw your display and the map they are using to chart your pilgrimage. See you in November! Blessings, Louise