Two local nonprofits thwart food waste
and boost access to healthful produce
By Patrice Vecchione
At the turn of the previous century, my great grandfather, then 12 years old, stowed away on a ship that took him from Italy to North Carolina. From there he walked alone the long way to New York City, gleaning as he went. Years later, he told his grandson, my father, “It’s a good thing it was autumn when I took that walk. The apple trees were full of fruit. I didn’t go hungry.”
The first time I went gleaning it was just before Halloween. My friend, Suzanne, her young grandson, James, and I went to a pumpkin patch along the coast that had, supposedly, been well picked. Before us, on that overcast morning, there appeared an almost-hidden treasure of assorted close-to-the-ground globes—the more we looked, the more we saw. There were pale orange pumpkins and some that were brilliant vermilion while others were ghost white.
The little boy may have been thinking of Jack-O-Lantern, but I was thinking of Thanksgiving pie. Put a pumpkin in my hand, and the anticipated flavors of sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg make me swoon. There were palm-sized pumpkins and pumpkins so big the three of us could have camped out atop them. The pumpkin James wanted was, of course, nearly too heavy to carry, but you know we did.
Historically, people have gone gleaning because they needed something to eat. Even after a field has been picked, there may be enough produce remaining to feed many mouths. According to the Torah, a farmer is obliged to leave a portion of her field unharvested so that hungry passersby may find something to eat. In the Book of Ruth, the widow Ruth goes gleaning to provide for herself and her companion, Naomi. The art of gleaning is in our DNA.
It is so out of fashion now, however, that when I type the words “glean Monterey” into Google, the search brings up an assortment of local maid services and household cleaning products, as though I’ve inadvertently hit the “c” instead of the “g.” Depending on where you live, these days, gleaning and the giving away of food may even be considered a criminal act. In Florida, a 90-year-old man was arrested not once, but three times, for offering food he’d gathered to homeless women and men. Many U.S. cities now have public food sharing bans, making it illegal for those with plentitude, or access to it, to share their bounty.
WASTE TO WINDFALL
All across the Monterey Bay region, Salinas-based Ag Against Hunger, now in its 25th year, is doing its best to relieve hunger by sharing our bounty on a large scale.
Each year it collects more than 12 million pounds of surplus fruits and vegetables from local growers and shippers and divvies them up quickly among food banks and other organizations that feed those in need. It also supports the More Produce for Schools program, a tricounty initiative that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to children who’d likely not get them otherwise.
And at a time when more than 40% of the food produced in the U.S. goes to the landfill and food insecurity is epidemic, Ag Against Hunger also plays an important role in reducing food waste. It’s a win-win.
“People would be shocked by the amount left in the fields after harvest. There’s a great difference between marketable and edible where consumers are concerned,” says Lynn Figone, the nonprofit’s executive director.
Indeed, no matter how carefully a field is picked, there’s always something left over; that’s just the nature of the work. Does a carrot taste less delicious or is it less healthy if it has a little ding or if it’s shaped like a question mark? Hardly. Often, produce is left in the field because it doesn’t meet customer size requirements. And so since 1990, Ag Against Hunger has delivered more than 230 million pounds of produce to those who need it.
Ag Against Hunger also invites community members to get their hands in the dirt and be part of the solution through joining volunteer gleans. Groups of people, from children to the elderly, caravan to the field where they’ll work to bring in the remaining harvest—or, in some cases, pick the whole thing.
In accordance with very strict food safety guidelines, the volunteers put on gloves and hairnets, receive cutting tools and are prepped by the grower before they’re sent out to the fields.
Pat Rutowski and her daughter have volunteered for Ag Against Hunger gleanings several times. They’ve picked beets, lettuce and cauliflower but had to miss out on a cherry harvest.
If you’ve never toiled in the fields yourself or witnessed the labor, it’s extremely demanding; fieldworkers must bend and cut, hoist and carry, and those who are paid to do the work have to do it all very quickly.
“It sure is physical work, and that gave me greater empathy for the fieldworkers out there every day,” Rutowski says.
Another group doing good gleaning work is the Santa Cruz Fruit Tree Project.
“When I was young I used to knock on people’s doors when I’d see fruit on the trees and ask if I could take some,” says Steve Schnaar, director and founder of the project. “They almost always said yes.” Today, when Santa Cruz residents grow more fruit than they can use, his organization coordinates fruit harvests with volunteers to pick what would otherwise be left on the branch or the vine, only to fall and rot on the ground.
This fruit is shared amongst those who’ve done the picking. When there’s a large enough amount, it gets donated to area organizations that serve the hungry, such as the Western Service Workers Association that serves working poor families. But because the amount harvested isn’t reliable enough to make a dent in hunger, the group focuses on community building and promoting local sustainability.
When the largess of the community is great enough, the group organizes processing events such as cider pressings and olive curing. A cider pressing day will typically bring out 40 to 50 people, and they’ll all get a turn at the nonprofit’s human-powered pedal presses.
“We all work together, and everybody gets to take some cider home,” Shnaar says. “I’m interested in preserving these little bursts of abundance.”
Currently, the project is working with the City of Santa Cruz and a group of residents to cultivate the next generation of fruit trees at Riverside Garden Park—coincidentally at the site of a former pear orchard. And though the group will tend the orchard, when the trees bear fruit, that sweetness will be available for everyone’s pleasure: the ultimate goal is for all people to have access to fresh fruit and to develop the skills required to cultivate it.
Thanks to our local gleaning organizations, our area’s bountiful produce is being efficiently channeled into alleviating the hunger of thousands of area residents—both the hunger for good, healthy food, and the hunger to help produce and share it with others.
“For those of us who don’t think much about where our food comes from, gleaning is a way to connect back to the source of our true livelihood,” says Rutowski, the Ag Against Hunger volunteer. “We reached into the dirt and brought out a meal.”
Monterey artist and writer Patrice Vecchione’s latest book, Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life, was published earlier this year by Simon & Schuster/Beyond Words. For her upcoming events, go to www.patricevecchione.com.
Ag Against Hunger • agagainsthunger.org
Santa Cruz Fruit Tree Project • fruitcruz.org