The glory of gleaning: Volunteers fight hunger by harvesting food that otherwise would go to waste

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10/22/2013 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 10:31 AM

It’s a diverse group that has gotten up early on a Saturday morning to meet at the little orchard behind the New Covenant Faith Center in Independence. Families with young children, a high school group from Archbishop O’Hara High School, and a few older adults gather around for instructions, and then disperse into merry groups, shaking down the trees and then running for cover before closing in to pick up the fruit.

Nice apples go in one bag. Not-so-nice but still edible apples go in another. The gooey ones just get tossed close to the tree trunks.

By the end of the morning, the pickers will have had a fun fall outing, a little fresh air and some exercise.

And they’ll have one thing more: the knowledge that they’re helping people across the city who can’t afford to feed themselves.

They are modern-day gleaners — a small but growing group of Kansas City volunteers intent on getting fruits and vegetables, which otherwise would go to waste, to people who rely on food pantries to eat. They work under the guidance of the Society of St. Andrew, an ecumenical nonprofit dedicated to just this purpose.

You name it, the Society of St. Andrew has picked it. Kale, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, peaches, apples, zucchini, cabbage. Last year, members wrangled a truckload of sweet potatoes donated by a grower in North Carolina who didn’t like the market price. This year, they’re hoping to get a thousand volunteers to glean 1 million pounds of squash during a four-day event at a pumpkin patch in Liberty.

The season is long — only a couple months short of year-round. Hoop houses and outdoor garden shelters extend the season, making it possible to start as early as March, if the weather’s right, said Karin Page, the group’s program coordinator. The season usually ends in November or even early December.

“We can get food that is going to be wasted to people who can’t afford to buy groceries. It’s really a common-sense effort,” said Lisa Ousley, director of the Society of St. Andrew West area, which includes Kansas City.

The practice of gleaning — going through fields and picking what has been left behind — is an ancient one that has gained new traction with the difficult economy and the renewed interest in gardening and healthy eating. It has been a common practice in Europe but is beginning to catch on in a big way in the U.S.

Last year was a record-breaker for the nonprofit. Nationwide, some 40,000 volunteers saved and distributed 33.6 million pounds of food, up about 24 percent from the year before.

The society’s western headquarters, which opened in Kansas City in 2008, has been picking up speed since its first gleaning at the Platte City farm of LeAnn and Klaus Karbaumer five years ago, Ousley said.

Since it opened, the society has provided about 15 million pounds of fresh produce to agencies in Kansas, Missouri and other western states. Last year, the society worked with 2,091 volunteers gathering 3 million pounds of food, and that’s up from the year before, she said. The group works closely with Harvesters and pantries across the metro area.

Gleaning goes at least as far back in history as the Old Testament, and probably further. Gleaners are mentioned in the book of Ruth and in the Hebrew agricultural laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in which farmers were admonished to leave a little of their crop in the fields for the poor.

Sometimes older volunteers say they remember gleaning during the Great Depression, Ousley said. But it had all but disappeared until the past decade.

To understand the need for the gleaning movement, look to the grocery store zucchini, Ousley said. Perfectly straight. Perfectly green. Perfectly uniform in length and stacked in their bins.

But as any home gardener knows, hardly anything in nature is that uniform. For every perfect zucchini, many more grew with quirky twists, blemishes and other abnormalities. Potatoes are another good example, Ousley said. Perfectly edible potatoes are rejected by the truckload because they are the wrong size or have the wrong sugar content.

In the past, all that fresh food ended up going to rot in the fields. Gleaners hope to change that.

Local gleaning works in a couple of ways, Ousley said. When a truckload of potatoes becomes available from a big farm, the group mobilizes volunteers to meet the truck in a parking lot, where they’ll unload it and pack the tubers into more manageable bags.

The rest of the gleaning is done in a more traditional way, by volunteers who are available, sometimes at a few hours’ notice, to drive out to a field and pick. The Society of St. Andrew reaches out to farmers in the area and asks if they’d be willing to let gleaners come in when they know they’ll have extra produce.

That’s how the group got to know the Karbaumers of Platte City and the Carolyn and Buddy Raasch family in Liberty, the pumpkin patch where the squash event will be. A recent tomato picking at the Karbaumers was one of at least four times that gleaners visited and was because the family had a surplus they wouldn’t be selling at the market, said LeAnn Karbaumer.

The Raasches have been involved in many philanthropic efforts and have held the squash gleaning event at their farm before, said Gieselle Fest, site director for the farm known as Carolyn’s Country Cousins. “They say nobody goes away from a farmer’s field hungry,” she said.

The 60-acre farm has 60 different kinds of edible pumpkins and squash for the people who come out to enjoy a fall day at the farm. But after the season is over, there are often still plenty of the vegetables left over for the gleaners, Fest said. The family likes the idea of getting that food to people in need, she said.

People in poverty tend to buy high-carbohydrate and high-calorie food because it is often cheap, said Doug Langner, director of St. James Place at 39th Street and Troost Avenue, which distributes food to the hungry in Kansas City. And sometimes pantries don’t have the space to keep fresh fruits and vegetables.

At St. James Place, gleaned food is used in the kitchen and handed out in the pantry, Langner said. “We try to use it in every meal. If we can’t use it, we make sure to put it in the produce bin for people.”

“You hate to overuse the term ‘lifesaving’ but in a way it is,” he said of the influx of fresh produce. “At least in the quality of life for folks here.”

Jim Schultz, mayor pro-tem of Independence, was one of a large group of gleaners picking up apples at the New Covenant Faith Center in Independence. Some of the hundreds of pounds of apples picked are bagged up and given to people in the city’s eight “neighborhood networks,” he said.

Each network helps people who might ordinarily be food pantry patrons. Schultz said he found out about the gleaning program only a few weeks ago.

“It’s really wonderful. Look how many people can eat and have fresh fruit,” he said. “Everybody is here, and everybody is so happy.”

Samantha McMurray said the apples will help her network of 17 families. “I hadn’t been out until today, but we’re definitely going to participate a lot more.”

Hungry families aren’t the only ones who are helped by gleaners. Until the volunteers started coming, the New Covenant Faith Center didn’t quite know what to do with all the apples coming from the 90 trees on a small strip of adjacent land it bought, said Jessie Peterson, of the church’s ministry staff.

Church members would keep some and give some away. But a lot stayed on the ground.

“We weren’t keeping up at all,” she said.

Now, volunteers are instructed to toss the unusable apples closer to the tree trunks as fertilizer. “So when they get done, it’s clean,” Peterson said.

The church members and neighbors still get some apples, but the gleaning fits well with the church’s mission, she said. “You know what the Bible says: I was hungry and you fed me,” Peterson said.

There seems to be plenty to go around. The group at the church orchard piled up hundreds of apples along the fence line as the morning went on — 1,727 pounds in all. And that was only one picking. Gleaners usually visit the orchard more than once.

People come from all over to volunteer. Church groups, high school clubs and people just looking for a family activity have been out, said Page, who coordinates the volunteer outings.

The Archbishop O’Hara group of 25 students included members of a student photography club and a youth group. Students came out and took pictures first, then went to work gleaning, said teacher Laura Eagle. The experience also jibes with the school’s teachings on the book of Ruth, which mentions gleaners, Eagle said.

Sophomore Aurora Barrera of Raytown enjoyed the outing with her friend Maya Ruebel-Marshall of Kansas City. Neither had been gleaning before, but they said it was a fun way to spend a morning. “And it’s going to a good cause,” said Ruebel-Marshall.

Sharon Snow, a senior from Raytown, said she signed up because “I thought it would be a really fun fall activity to do and a great way to help the hungry in our community.”

Let’s squash hunger

The Society of St. Andrew hopes to top off the gleaning season by recruiting 1,000 volunteers to harvest squash left in the fields at Carolyn’s Country Cousins pumpkin patch in Liberty.

Squash Hunger 2013 organizers hope to gather a million pounds of squash to be distributed to food kitchens and pantries in time for Thanksgiving dinners.

When:

Nov. 3-6

Where:

17607 N.E. 52nd St., Liberty

How to volunteer: Call 816-921-0856

Who’s needed:

Gleaners and people with trucks and vans willing to deliver the squash.

The society also asks food pantries interested in receiving squash to call the number above.

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