Gleaning volunteers transform farm waste into fresh bounty for food banks
LANCASTER, Va. (AP) — It’s hot, it’s buggy and a bit confining amidst the corn rows on Ronnie Forrester’s Holyoke Farm.
None of that is diminishing the sense of accomplishment young volunteer pickers are getting from their chance to help the hungry.
“It feels pretty darn good to know we’re putting food on other people’s tables,” says Jakovian Horton, 13, of Winston-Salem, N.C.
He and 52 others have come with church groups from North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia on a “Harvest of Hope” team provided by the Society of St. Andrew.
They’re harvesting crops Northern Neck farmers are producing through a new Northern Neck Food Bank program.
Most youngsters working these three food bank-dedicated acres are quietly working rows that reach halfway to the sky. But not Jakovian. He is a force of nature. He’s singing, he’s talking, he’s ripping ears of corn off the stalks and tossing them into plastic bins he fills amazingly fast.
Brad Grinnen has reason to smile as he watches from the field near Lancaster Courthouse. Grinnen is vice president of the Northern Neck Food Bank. He says the operation, headquartered in White Stone, surveyed users of the food bank last year and got a striking result: More than a third of the hungry and needy served by the Food Bank reported having Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.
“That led us to push for ways to provide more healthy fruits and vegetables,” Grinnen explains. “One way to do that was to get farmers throughout the Northern Neck to either plant vegetables specially for us or to let our volunteers come through and glean what’s left after harvests.”
The day’s work at Holyoke Farm consisted of the harvesting of 3 acres of sweet corn Forrester and sons Dwight and Chad planted specially for the food bank.
“We pay for the seed and the gas but count on farmers to provide the acreage for us,” said Grinnen, who said the food bank would get 90,000 ears of corn from the Forresters’ three acres.
“We’re glad to do it,” said Forrester. “It’s good to know it’s going to help the hungry right here in the Northern Neck.”
Like Grinnen, Charlotte Forrester has her own reasons to smile. She’s pleased that her family’s farm, operating there since 1952, is doing its part to fight hunger. As manager of the food bank’s warehouse, she was thrilled to arrive in the van that would collect enough corn to send fresh ears to all the pantries and agencies it supplies.
All summer, Grinnen notes, volunteer groups will fan out to help the food bank harvest and glean produce all across the Northern Neck.
“At places like Parker Farms in Westmoreland County, we’ll glean substantial quantities of corn and other vegetables,” he says, noting that at times large harvests are shared with other food banks so no fresh produce is wasted.
Waste is a word that resonates with SOSA Harvest of Hope Director Bill Leach, who has just logged a week in the field at Holyoke Farm with his two kids.
“There’s no reason for anyone to be hungry in this country,” he says, noting that nearly 100 billion pounds of produce go to waste each year.
Much of that, he says, is produce left in fields because it isn’t the ideal size or shape for supermarkets or because it isn’t perfectly ripe on the day of harvest.
Dave Miner, whose Kalamazoo, Mich., church group stayed with the other Harvest volunteers all week at Westmoreland State Park, says years of gleaning has opened his eyes to shameful waste.
He notes that all broccoli shoppers, for example, want that perfect 4- to 5-inch bunch.
“Anything larger or smaller than that will be just left in the field,” says Leach, who said he’s seen Harvest of Hope volunteers get some 4,000 pounds an acre of broccoli or other vegetables intentionally left behind.
Miner notes that some produce left behind because it’s not ideally ripe can actually be the best of the bunch. “But it may not fit the schedule from field to supermarket.”
Grinnen says the food bank is excited about the new growing-gleaning program and hopes to expand it in future years.
“Getting this amount of fresh produce to our users is a big step forward,” he notes. “We’re excited about it.”