Mention the word glean and most people will think of gathering information from various 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 programs 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 Amish 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.
This 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.
The past couple of weeks both food pantries in which I volunteer have gotten large shipments of donated items from the county food bank. These items are not TEFAP (Federal) or State supplied food. They are strictly items donated by the general public to the county food bank through canned food drives or individual drop offs. These sizeable shipments have been filled with many useful and needed items, like cereals, canned fruits and vegetables, and peanut butter. They have also contained items for clients with health problems or special diets, like low sodium soups, vegetarian items or sugar and fat free items which are good for diabetics. I have, however, made a couple disappointing observations that I wanted to share.
First, most food items are now stamped with a sell by or use by date. The majority of items are donated well before their expiration date, but at both pantries we have encountered items that were expired. In several instances the items were several years out of date. Additionally, we encountered severely dented or rusted cans. Canned goods that were only a few months out of date or are only slightly dented are put on a table or shelf with an explanation as to why they are there, allowing clients to decide whether to take them or not. Items that are well beyond their expiration date, heavily dented or rusted have to be thrown away. My suggestion to people who contribute to a food bank or pantry is to look at the sell by date and the condition of the can. This is especially important if the item is coming out of your pantry. I know I have been surprised at how old some items are in my own pantry. If the food item is either out of date or in questionable condition, please do not donate it.
As I mentioned, most of the items donated are useful and needed, but I have seen some very odd items as well. Some of my favorites include a can of hearts of palm, Chinese Mabo Tofu Sauce and tamarind sauce. All of these items may be quite tasty, but they are not something the average cook, particularly in rural Pennsylvania, is going to know what to do with. Most food banks and pantries have a list of items they regularly distribute or for which they have a particular need. I encourage anyone uncertain about what to donate to contact the local food bank or check their website to get that list of most needed items. Some items that can always be used are canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, and unsweetened cereals. Please do not think of the local food bank as a place to take unwanted items from your pantry.
And now about the dirt. No, the dirt has nothing to do with the donated food from the county food bank. Today I got to play in the dirt a bit. One of the food pantries where I volunteer has raised beds in which they grow vegetables to be distributed in the food pantry. The broccoli seedlings we planed today were supplied by the county food bank. In addition to the broccoli we planted today, volunteers had already planted onions, radishes, cabbage, lettuce and carrots. To augment the vegetables grown in the raised beds, some staff members of the food pantry will plant other vegetables at their homes to be harvested for the pantry. I love this idea of the pantry growing their own produce and this pantry is fortunate to have the space to do so. I am excited to think of all the fresh produce that will be available to food pantry clients later this summer.