September 14, 2010

Give it away, give it away, give it away now

Last month, Northwest Current correspondent Teke Wiggen followed Vince Hill, Jeffery Wankel and 30 volunteers into the heat of the fields of Parker Farms in Colonial Beach, Virginia to learn about our Glean for the City program.

Now in its second year, Glean for the City has become an essential part of our food pantry -- enabling us to provide free, fresh produce to nearly 5,000 households each month. In fact, it’s been packing our pantry pretty much to the brim -- and yet there’s still acres of food left untouched out there. (See our recent photos here.)

So we’re trying to figure out how to rescue even more. That starts by just giving it away more quickly. So now our NW food pantry is putting out a variety of freshly picked produce for anyone to take home--even if they don’t participate in our food program. Seriously, these bins are just set out there, and people can come and pick their fill. All we ask is that they promise to eat what they take -- and enjoy.

Since the Northwest Current is only in PDF form, we’re sharing the full text of the article with you below.

Gleaning Crews Aim to Feed the Hungry
By Teke Wiggin, NW Current, August 11 2010

“Go deep!” yells a girl in a white tank top as she chucks three ears of corn in rapid succession toward a man stooped over a crate behind a row of stalks. The man springs upright, deftly grabbing each ear as it hurtles through the air. Laughing to himself, he snaps off the stalk butts and peels the thick outer husks. He begins to drop the ears into a crate lying at his feet but pauses and turns his head toward the girl. “You’re not checking these, Ashley!” he shouts. Ashley shakes her head and prepares to launch another salvo, scooping up ears from the tilled soil and snapping off others from trimmed stalks. On a sweltering Saturday, the two volunteers, along with about 30 others, are scouring Parker Farms cornfields in Oak Grove, Va., to harvest leftover crops for the food-salvaging program known as Glean for the City.

Now in its second year, the program gleans crops from local farms in order to add large quantities of produce to the 5,000 food bags its Northwest-based parent organization, Bread for the City, provides to D.C.’s poor and needy each month.

Though Bread for the City collects canned goods and other nonperishable food items year-round, from July to November it focuses on the gleaning program, gathering different crops ranging from broccoli to apples at area farms. The program organizes gleaning sessions on farm acreage that has just undergone harvest, furnishing vans and coordinators to guide participants through crop fields. Last year, the program salvaged more than 50,000 pounds of fresh produce, according to Bread for the City spokesperson Greg Bloom, who said that figure should increase this year by at least 50 percent.

Since its inception, Glean for the City has been a hit, attracting hundreds of volunteers eager to sample a days work in the fields. “It’s hard to imagine exhausting the interest in this kind of volunteer work,” Bloom said. “The prospect of heading out to the country to pick up food ... that’s something a lot of people are ready to get behind.”

Chevy Chase father-and-son team Larry and Kevin Carlson labored in the fields Saturday, trudging through the dirt ditches that cleave crop rows and foraging with their hands for forgotten ears. Both said they enjoyed the experience of scrounging up sweet corn that otherwise would have gone to waste. “It’s gratifying,” Kevin said. “It feels like you’ve accomplished something. I like filling bins.” Aforementioned corn-tossing enthusiast Ashley Lawson, who is also the coordinator of the D.C. food kitchen Miriam's Kitchen, said she likes that gleaning allows her to be part of the giving process from start to finish.

“It’s nice when we can come out here and assess the quality of food were serving ... it really shows that we care about them,” she said. Miriam's Kitchen is one of several service organizations and projects that regularly partners with Glean for the City. Coordinator Vince Hill explained that gleaning is not uncommon for food pantries and kitchens, but usually is very ad hoc. “Glean for the City,” Hill said, “is one of the only programs he knows of that has the wherewithal vans, crates, staff to operate on a large scale.” Hard work and feel-good generosity aside, gleaning can also be quite the eye-opener for some volunteers.

Sarah Ngueyem, who is pursuing an associates degree at Montgomery College, said she was no stranger to this work. Back in Cameroon, she and her family regularly handpicked crops together. But Ngueyem saw something Saturday shed never witnessed on her family’s farm: enormous volumes of produce left to rot. “Back home we don’t use machines, so we do it all by ourselves. My grandma used to come behind us to check,” she said, puzzled by the leftover ears that smattered the ground or still poked up out of post-harvest stalks.

Bread for the City Project Manager Jeffrey Wankel, who started the gleaning program last year along with the organizations nutrition consultant, Sharon Gruber, said he was also surprised to find out about the excess. When researching how the organization could acquire more fresh produce, he learned that factors like consumer size standards, blemishes and human error cause up to half of crop yields to go to waste. That frustration was what led Wankel to engineer Glean for the City in the first place. Last year, Wankel and Gruber drew up a list of 100 farms within a 60-mile radius of Breads headquarters at 1525 7th St. NW. Then they started putting out cold calls.

Bread for the City spokesperson Bloom recalled the process: “What we found along the way...was farmers [saying], We have tons of food here, but we just don’t have the resources. But if you send volunteers out here, were happy to let you come and take it.” Wankel said many farmers were eager to help, and gave tips on the best ways to scout out leftover produce like visiting farmers markets.

Glean for the City now visits local markets several times a week to scrounge up vendors' excess products, allowing the organization to supply at least five types of produce throughout the harvest season. When it comes to visiting actual farms, Wankel said selecting the right ones depends on yield potential. “You have to find a farm with the capacity; small farms will say, ‘We’d love you to come, but we only have 200 pounds’”, he said. That quantity might sound hefty on paper, but its just a fraction of what Glean for the City can amass with a 30-person crew over only two hours.

After gleaning in the sun for an afternoon on Parker Farms, Hill and Wankel told a sweaty, dirt-spattered crowd they’d rounded up 3,000 pounds of fresh, quality sweet corn. Glean for the City will average this quantity on every one of its weekly trips to local farms. But Hill said all the trips combined will still leave a disturbing amount of the total surplus behind: almost all of it. For this reason, he said, he can count on hearing the following words from Parker Farms owner Rod Parker during every gleaning trip: “You didn’t bring enough bins, and you didn’t bring enough people.”

More information about Glean for the City is available at

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