Mention the word glean and most people will think of gathering information from variousthe-gleaners-1857 sources, because that is how the word is mostly used today.  But glean has an historical definition, meaning to gather grain or other crops left in the field after a harvest.  In some ancient cultures gleaning was encouraged as a method to assist those in need, an early form of helping the food insecure.  The Bible and the Torah instructed farmers to leave sections of fields unharvested or to not pick up crops dropped during harvest.  These crops were to be left for the poor or strangers.

Today, many emergency food organizations have gleaning programs.  Some programs, like FOOD (Food On Our Doorstep) Share in Oxnard, CA coordinate an extensive network of volunteers and growers.  This organization harvests an average of 50,000-60,000 lbs. of produces each month, mostly from farms, but also from backyard gardens and fruit trees.  Other gleaners2programs may just have a handful of volunteers who establish a relationship with a few farmers or gardeners.  Currently Chester County Food Bank does not seem to have a gleaning program, but they did at one time.  When I first considered volunteering at food banks, gleaning was one of the areas in which I had considered volunteering my time.  It appeals to me in two ways.  First, gleaning helps to eliminate waste.  America is an incredibly wasteful society, embarrassingly so in my opinion, and keeping any fresh produce from becoming part of the waste stream, particularly in landfills is a step in the right direction.  Secondly, gleaning gets fresh produce into the hands of people who would otherwise not have access to it.

I often wondered how successful a gleaning program would be in our corner of Chester County.  While we live in a rural setting, most of the farmers growing on any large scale are Amish.  I was unsure whether they would assist the non-Amish community and give away the fruits of their labor.  I wasn’t even sure if they would have excess produce to donate.  I know many Amishamish-farming-dy farmers have produce stands and travel to local farmers’ markets, but maybe they would keep any excess produce to share within their community.  Or maybe there would be little to no waste  because they canned or otherwise preserved their harvest and gave any marginal produce to their livestock to eat.  They are such a simple, plain folk, maybe they very conscientiously only grew what they could use, frowning on excess.  I just did not know.

012d233fda6026a80e2dd7f7d677d04d2e7579e13eThis summer I got my answer.  Every Tuesday morning a van belonging to one of the local food panties would go to Amish farms to collect what they could not use or sell.  During the latter part of summer, when the vegetable harvest is in full swing, the van would return loaded with corn, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers and more!  Learning this brought me happiness on many levels.  I was glad to see folks in need of food getting access to so much fresh produce.  I was pleased to see that food was not going to waste.  And I was happy to know that this connection existed between our communities.  I am quite fond of the Amish farmer who’s produce stand I frequent, and while I do not completely agree with all of their practices, I do believe we could learn much from them.


Produce in the Parking Lot

On March 26th I had the opportunity to attend a program sponsored by the Delaware Historical Society entitled Forks in the Road.  This panel discussion, addressing contemporary food issues in Delaware, was the first in a series the Historical Society plans to present over the next year and a half.  The talk was moderated by Ed Kee, Delaware’s Secretary of Agriculture and the panel included two farmers, Larry Jester and Georgie Cartanza; former Chief Planner for the DE Department of Agriculture, Michael McGrath; Director of Marketing for the Kenny Family Shoprite, Dan Tanzer and Produce Director for Urban Acres Produce, LLC, Michael Minor.

While all the panelists were engaging and I had interest in all the topics that were discussed, I was particularly interested in Mr. Minor’s discussion of Urban Acres Produce.  Urban Acres operates 4 produce stands, Urban Acresselling locally grown produce when possible, in Wilmington’s East Side, a community lacking easy access to healthy food.  The term used to describe communities that lack convenient access to healthy food is a food desert.  A governmental working group comprised of members from various agencies including the USDA defines a food desert as a “low income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”  Food deserts exist in every state, in urban locations and rural settings surrounded by growing produce.

Several aspects of this venture appeal to me.  First, Urban Acres’ produce stands are an innovative way to introduce healthy food to residents in an area that has limited access to fresh produce.  These stands operate from May through November in 4 different locations.  (For days, hours and locations click on link below)  The stands are situated in convenient places that significant numbers of residents frequent, like apartment building parking lots or churches, in hopes of reaching more residents. In addition to just selling produce, Mr. Minor discussed the necessity of educating people about the importance of eating healthy food whenever possible.

Urban Acres welcomes volunteers but also utilizes paid staff members from the community to run its produce stands.  Urban Acres was started not only as a means of getting produce into a food desert, but as a way to provide a community resident with a job.  By engaging the community, either through employment or as volunteers,  Urban Acres is empowering the citizens of the East Side to create a better situation for themselves.  With Urban Acres as an employer, the community will also have a vested interest in the success of these produce stands in order to keep those jobs in the community.

Finally, these produce stands provide access to local produce during the growing season.  The nutrient content of produce begins to decrease once it is harvested.  Local produce is likely to be higher in nutrients because there is a shorted time between harvest and consumption.  It is better for the environment since it has less of a distance to travel to get to market, using less fuel and creating less pollution.  Finally, by purchasing local produce Urban Acres is also assisting smaller, often family farming operations and supporting the local economy.   But perhaps the best reason to provide local produce is that it just tastes better because it is picked at the peak of ripeness!

local produce

Some may wonder why I am spending a blog post discussing urban produce stands.  Hunger, food insecurity and food deserts are all pieces to the same puzzle.  These problems speak to larger issues in our society like wage inequality, unemployment and poverty.  They are also intertwined with what the government subsidizes, large agribusiness growing corn and soybeans, and what it does not, smaller farming operations growing a diversity of produce.  These subsidies help make heavily processed food cheaper and produce more expensive.  Finally, making produce available in communities which have had limited access to it connects with my discussion of cooking from scratch and stretching food dollars.  You can’t cook what you can’t purchase due to lack of access.

I am encouraged when I see a community coming together to create a solution for its specific problem.  As I told friends and family that I was planning to assist the hungry and food insecure, several people told me this was an issue of concern for them, but they were overwhelmed by the size of the problem and felt immobilized with helplessness.  I was too initially, but decided my mission was to work within my community to bring awareness to the existence of food insecurity and other food scarcity issues and to help find solutions to lessen the numbers of people experiencing these problems.  I am using this blog to chronicle that effort, but also to educate others on the larger, national issues and hopefully build a community to grow ideas and create solutions to these problems.  Some of the best catalysts for change have come out of local, grassroot operations.