CANTON, Ohio – On an overcast Saturday last fall, Ronnie Wendell and a small crew of workers headed out to the apple orchard. They spent the morning scrutinizing and selecting, picking and packing.
Is this one ripe enough? Has there been insect damage? What about weather damage?
The workers carefully sorted the produce, keeping their consumers in mind.
Although Wendell played a part in agriculture that day, he’s not a farmer, an inspector or even a hired employee.
He’s simply a man with a mission.
Gleaning. Wendell works with eastern Ohio produce farmers to glean leftover goods from fields after the harvest. Then, he takes the fresh food to area food banks to help feed the hungry.
A hunger relief advocate with the Society of St. Andrew, Wendell has been involved in gleaning fields for about five years. He’s learned to harvest potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, apples and cucumbers, which, he said, isn’t bad for a fellow who has no farming background.
“What I try to do is bridge between the farmer and the organization that would receive it (the food),” said Wendell, who runs the local program with the help of Alliance resident Robert Pyle.
The program works because perfectly edible produce is often left behind by growers due to small imperfections that keep it from being eligible for retail sale. Volunteers like Wendell are the difference between letting it rot and getting it onto the plates of those who need it most.
Challenges. However, it’s not the harvest that presents the biggest obstacle. Finding volunteers to glean and finding farmers who will allow it are the most difficult challenges.
The group also faces hurdles with transportation costs. If a particular area has an over-abundance of any type of produce, hunger relief advocates try to get the goods shipped to places where it’s needed. But unfortunately, that adds expenses to their mission.
Fellow gleaner. George Jensen heads up the Society of St. Andrew’s gleaning efforts in western Ohio.
Besides gleaning fields for fresh produce, volunteers also collect dented and unlabeled cans of fruits and vegetables from a cannery. When boxes containing frozen chicken and frozen french fries are damaged during shipping, those items head to area humanitarian organizations, too.
Roadside produce stands are another source of goods like melons, squash and lettuce.
Although there are times when donations lag, busy days make up for it, Jensen said. During a four-day period in April, the group collected 11,530 pounds of food. That brought their total for 2007 to 75,872 pounds.
Jensen and other volunteers have gleaned typical Ohio produce like yellow beans, green beans, potatoes, sweet corn, tomatoes and peppers. But sometimes they get products that aren’t native to the area, like a 4,640- pound load of bananas that recently found its way to their cause.
Potatoes. Donations come in all shapes and sizes, but the largest donation Wendell ever received came early in his gleaning career. Moomaw Potato Farm in Wooster had 50,000 pounds of potatoes set to be made into potato chips, but the spuds turned out to be slightly discolored. Although the potatoes couldn’t be sold, Wendell made sure they didn’t go to waste.
Often, volunteers can gather a large amount of food in a short amount of time. Last October, four volunteers gleaned 600 pounds of apples in just three hours at Sunny Slope Orchard in Massillon.
“When we do glean a field, we try not to work it more than four hours,” he said.
Fruits and veggies. The program accepts any kind of fruits or vegetables, from beans and berries to peaches and sweet corn.
“Any fruit, vegetable, anything can be used,” Wendell said.
In some cases, volunteers don’t do an actual harvest. During a potato drop, for instance, truckloads of loose potatoes are brought to an area where volunteers simply sort them into 10-pound bags.
So far, the St. Andrew’s program has found its way into 27 states, however the ultimate goal is to have a hunger relief advocate in every state.
According to the USDA and U.S. Census Bureau, there are 35 million Americans who don’t get enough to eat, but every year, 96 billion pounds of food go to waste in the U.S.
Motivated. Those 35 million empty bellies are the motivation Wendell and Jensen need to keep going.
“There’s so many hungry Americans and we sort of forget,” Jensen said.
Often, hunger is associated only with poverty-stricken families in Third World countries, but there are many children and adults in the U.S. who pick through trash bins to keep from starving.
“This is the United States, it shouldn’t be happening,” Jensen said.
So, volunteers work to change the situation. Since Jensen got involved with his local program seven years ago, he’s seen more than 1.5 million pounds of food go to help feed the hungry.
But there’s more work ahead of these gleaners. For Wendell, it’s a bit of a struggle to get the job done sometimes. Only two eastern Ohio farms are participating right now and Wendell is constantly searching for more. Volunteers to harvest the goods and volunteer truck drivers are also needed for the program to succeed.
Because there’s plenty of food to go around, Wendell said. It’s just a matter of getting it to those who need it.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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