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Nov 042009

By Harriet Blake

Fact: America has an abundance of food.
Question: So why does anyone go hungry in this country?


A potato gleaning in Virginia (Photo: Society of St. Andrew)

Armed with this simple thought, the Society of St. Andrew (SOSA) took up the cause of feeding the hungry in 1979 with the idea of gleaning fields for salvageable produce.

“We do this in two says,” says Carol Breitinger, communications director. “We use volunteers in the field for hands-on gleaning, or we send out trucks to pick up surplus crops that farmers can’t use and would just end up in the landfill.”

Once SOSA obtains the produce, they distribute to food pantries around the country. Breitinger says they salvage 20 to 25 million pounds of food a year with the help of 30,000 to 35,000 volunteers. The volunteers come from church groups, schools, scout troops, and even from the people who need the food.

Becky and Dave Aduddell of Wake Forest, N.C., are two of SOSA’s veteran volunteers. “We’ve been doing this for five or six years now,” says Dave, who is a web programmer for a local community college by day and a bass player by night. The couple was hooked after a friend who was gleaning introduced them to the concept. “It sounded like such an eminently logical idea that we joined him very shortly after he started.”


Gleaning a field in North Carolina (Photo: Society of St. Andrew)

“Our interest in gleaning stems from that great desire within each of us to ‘do some good.’ We like it because it is very concrete and tangible. Writing a check to a charity gives one a good feeling and a sense of satisfaction, but going out and working to glean, then delivering the produce directly to the recipients is a very concrete act.”

The Aduddells bring their gleaned crops to a public housing complex in the small town where they live.

The couple acknowledges that the gleaning process wasn’t a big stretch – both of them come from farming families. “While we didn’t grow up on a farm, we spent time doing farm work as kids, so this is a nice déjà vu for us,” says Dave.

In mid-October the Aduddells joined several hundred volunteers for the 19th annual Yam-Jam, sponsored by SOSA. The group salvaged unharvested sweet potatoes from a 50-acre field in rural Johnston County, North Carolina. The area had already been harvested by professionals. In addition to sweet potatoes, Becky says the group has collected corn, green beans, collards, tomatoes, watermelon, squash and blueberries.

“A good 20 percent of produce is lost in the fields,” says SOSA’s Breitinger. She says the USDA calculates that 96 billion pounds of food is wasted in this country before it gets to market.

Why do farmers leave good food behind? “Sometimes commercial growers must leave one field to move on to the next crop,” says Breitinger. Other times, the produce isn’t “perfect” enough for market – not quite the right size or color, but perfectly edible. Also, sometimes the farmer can’t afford to pay another crew to come through his fields again.

Gleaning a perfect cabbage in Virginia (Photo: Society of St. Andrew)

Gleaning a perfect cabbage in Virginia (Photo: Society of St. Andrew)

Farmer Leo Stallings says he has leftovers because there isn’t a big market for produce in Franklin County, the area of North Carolina where his farm is located. Stallings, who has been in the farm business for 40 years, grows a number of crops including sweet corn, beans, cantaloupe, collards, peas, squash and string beans. “This area is not very commercial. There are few markets. Growing is not a problem, but selling is. We don’t have a co-op to handle acres of crops.

“I try to plant about as much as I think will sell. But because the market varies, I often have leftovers.”

Stallings says SOSA volunteers come out in the summer and late fall to salvage his fields. He says he doesn’t mind giving it away. “I don’t want it to go to waste and they give us a tax credit for it.”

When large growers donate a tractor trailer load of food, SOSA might contact a group of volunteers, often a church group, to sponsor a “potato drop.”

“Imagine 45,000 pounds of loose potatoes dumped into a church parking lot,” says Breitinger. “Volunteers then put 10 to 15 pounds of potatoes into mesh bags. We contact the local food pantries to come to pick it up.”