|Gleaning Network Feeds Hungry with Farm Surplus|
by Alvin Benn
In central Alabama, a growing number of farmers have become part of the "Gleaning Network"; and the results have been getting good marks from the people who spend their days feeding the poor and hungry.
Sponsored by the Society of St. Andrew—a non-profit ecumenical Christian ministry—the Gleaning Network involves saving as much food as possible in the fields so it can be consumed by people before it is discarded.
The program depends heavily on volunteers; and appeals are going out in the Montgomery and Birmingham regions to elicit support for help in getting the food to service organizations such as the Salvation Army and other agencies that help the hungry.
In the Montgomery area, Teresa and Todd Cole have spent the past few months delivering fruit and vegetables from State Farmers Markets to the Salvation Army, church soup kitchens and other sites where hungry people gather.
Teresa Cole is music director at the Woodland United Methodist Church while her husband is maintenance supervisor at a Montgomery apartment complex. They have busy schedules, but they’ve committed themselves to breaking away an hour a day, six days a week, to transport food from Montgomery’s five State Farmers Markets to soup kitchens.
What they could use are some volunteers to help them, if only one hour a week. They’ve been asking for assistance since they began working in the food program in April.
On a miserably hot, humid day in late June, the Coles arrived at the State Farmers Market on Fairview Avenue in west Montgomery and wasted no time meeting with Flora Brown, who directs the facility.
Within a few minutes, Todd Cole lugged a large white plastic bag filled with fruit and vegetables to his pickup truck, heaved it into the back and got ready to take it to the Salvation Army headquarters on Bell Street.
The items came from farmers who brought their food to the market. During the sorting process, they separated fruit and vegetables that might not have been visually pleasing and set them aside for the Coles.
"When the farmers aren’t happy with some of their items, they put them off to one side and then we handle it," said Brown. "They can get tax deductions for what they do, but most just won’t take it. They want to help people in any way they can."
That doesn’t surprise Jerry Newby, president of the Alabama Farmers Federation and ALFA Insurance Co. that support the Society of St. Andrew project.
"The gleaning program is a great way to provide fresh, healthy food to those who need it," said Newby. "ALFA and the Alabama Farmers Federation are pleased to provide support for the program and we’re grateful for the generosity of farmers in our state as well."
Rachel Radeline Gonia, regional director of Birmingham-based Alabama Gleaning Network, appreciates the work being done by Teresa Cole, who looks forward to visiting the farmers’ markets in Montgomery to pick up her latest supply of produce for the poor.
"Since beginning this part-time work, Cole has salvaged more than 5,100 pounds of fresh produce from 16 area farmers," Gonia said, adding that the food is taken by Cole and her husband to the Salvation Army, Faith Rescue Mission and other agencies involved in feeding the hungry.
Gonia said most volunteers come from churches, but some represent civic and youth groups such as Rotary Clubs, Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts.
"These volunteer gleaners enter the fields to gather what might be left for distribution to agencies that feed the hungry," Gonia said.
In most cases, however, it’s the farmers who take it upon themselves to go through their produce at the markets and separate the items they believe will be good for the Salvation Army and other agencies that help the hungry.
Mary Williams, who sells peanuts and other farm products at the Fairview State Farmers Market and has no interest in tax credits, has a simple explanation as to why she does what she can to help those who need it the most.
"The food I would take to a trash can now is being given to people who are hungry and will eat it," she said. "It’s as easy as that to understand."
The Society of St. Andrew’s Alabama Gleaning Program has been active since 2001 when the non-denominational organization and state farmers formed a unique partnership to help the needy.
Four years after the Alabama program began, a regional office was established in Birmingham and Gonia has been directing operations from the state’s headquarters. Last year, Gonia said her organization responded to the "unexpected, yet dramatic need for food resulting from the hurricanes that hit the U.S. in 2005."
In response to Hurricane Katrina that devastated the Gulf Coast region of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, especially New Orleans, the Society of St. Andrew distributed thousands of pounds of food to those areas.
In Alabama, she said a truckload of food was delivered to Pickens County in cooperation with the Magic City Harvest and Christian Service Mission distribution programs. "Over 3,000 pounds of field-gleaned watermelon and cantaloupe were delivered to shelters in Auburn, Jasper and Alexander City," she said. "The University of West Alabama Wesley Foundation sponsored a tractor-trailer load of sweet potatoes which was delivered to Livingston for distribution to those western counties hit so hard."
Nearly 100 billion pounds of consumable food are wasted each year in the United States, according to the organization, which said that amount of waste "is more than enough needed to feed all of our nation’s hungry citizens."
Through the Gleaning Network and the Potato Project, the Society of St. Andrew was able to serve 88 million meals in the U.S. Those two programs attacked the two main points of large volume food waste—farmers’ fields and produce packing houses.
Donating produce before it spoils in the fields won’t work without the help of volunteers and St. Andrew has been able to attract thousands of them.
In 1965, more than 40,000 volunteers participated across the country. The number is small but growing in Alabama and that is why Gonia and Cole are working so hard to entice more volunteers.
"I went into it totally blind and had no idea how it would go, but it’s been great," said Cole, who said she is paid "a small amount" as area director, but derives more personal benefits from what she does than any paycheck she might receive.
Her husband, who does much of the lifting after he and his wife arrive at the farmers markets, said the food may not be visually attractive, "but it’s ready to be cooked the same night of the deliveries."
"The look of the fruit and vegetables might turn some people off, but it’s all nutritious and hungry people aren’t going to complain very much when they see how it’s made into a fine meal," he said.
Teresa Cole said she hasn’t had time to visit all the soup kitchens and shelters in Montgomery and that is the reason she needs volunteers to help take up the slack.
"I need people to come, pick up and deliver," she said. "We already have the people to load and unload. All we need is someone to make the deliveries."
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer for the Society of St. Andrew, contact Teresa Cole at (334) 221-2867.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.