Food banks benefit from imperfect harvest

Volunteers, many of whom are teens from a confirmation class at Our Lady Queen of Peace begin the process of loading up a truck after hours of gleaning apples at the Marker-Miller Orchards in Winchester, Va. Enlarge photo

Doug Kapustin for USA TODAY

Volunteers, many of whom are teens from a confirmation class at Our Lady Queen of Peace begin the process of loading up a truck after hours of gleaning apples at the Marker-Miller Orchards in Winchester, Va.

On a sunny September morning, more than 100 volunteers gathered at John and Carolyn Marker’s orchards near Winchester, Va., to pick apples that had fallen to the ground.

Ready for consumption but not suitable for the supermarket, where consumers have come to expect near-perfection, the Golden Delicious were sent to nearby food banks.

The process, called gleaning, is one of the growing trends in the struggle against hunger in America. Volunteers descend on farm fields across the country to reclaim some of the estimated 7 billion pounds of fresh produce left in farmers’ fields or sent to landfills each year, recovering it for the plates of millions who can’t afford it.

As the cash-strapped federal government tries to meet record demand for domestic food aid, private efforts – even small-scale ones such as that which took place for a few hours on the Markers’ orchards – are being depended upon more and more.

Betty Heishman, the Winchester-area gleaning coordinator for the Society of St. Andrew, who coordinated the outing, organizes volunteers to glean slightly bruised or misshaped apples, turnips, potatoes, beans, peaches and other fresh produce from willing farmers’ land. They begin in late spring and go through fall.

She says she runs into more and more people – especially elderly on fixed incomes or parents with hungry children in tow – who tell her they avoid the fresh-produce aisles in grocery stores because they can’t afford it.

“You can’t take a child through a grocery aisle and have her see a pretty red apple and say, ‘No you can’t have that,’” says Heishman, whose organization coordinates gleaning activities in 20 states. “This is ridiculous, this waste. So we are putting that apple out there in those kids’ hands.”

Gleaning is a small part of what’s needed for a growing demand. The Department of Agriculture announced last month that about 50 million Americans couldn’t afford to buy food at one time or another over the previous year and that 17 million were chronically forced to skip meals. The latter figure was a rise of 800,000 over 2010 as Americans struggled to recover from the worst economic conditions since the 1930s. In June, the 46.7 million Americans receiving food stamps were a record.

The need is not going away anytime soon. As unemployment lingers above 8 percent, the federal government is running deep deficits, and cuts in food programs are possible in the next round of budget negotiations. High commodity prices have not only put some groceries out of the reach of the poor, they have resulted in fewer government purchases of commodities under the price support system for farmers.

Food banks have historically depended on those surplus purchases as a key food source. Private networks have stepped in, and private companies have stepped up.”Our system is incredibly overburdened,” says Maura Daly, chief communication and development officer for Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity. The Chicago-based organization distributes food to more than 200 food banks around the country, large warehouses that distribute food to 61,000 food pantries, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, senior centers and other distribution agencies.

Feeding America’s latest “Hunger In America” survey in 2010 found that 37 million Americans got food from the network at some time in the previous year, an increase of 46 percent over 2006. About 5.7 million were served in any given week, up 1.2 million over 2006.

Thanks to gleaning, but primarily from direct donations from farmers and food processors, wholesalers and retailers, the reclamation of otherwise wasted fresh produce has steadily risen. In the year ending June 30, Feeding America distributed a record 549 million pounds of produce, up 52 percent over 2008. The Environmental Protection Agency says 105 entities – from food processors to universities to Major League baseball clubs – have joined a food-recovery program the EPA began in the past decade.

The EPA says 34 million tons of unmarketable produce and table scraps went into landfills in 2010. It was the largest source of solid waste, and the rotting food produces methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas.

Gleaning and other produce-reclamation efforts coincide with a national crusade against obesity, led by first lady Michelle Obama. Obesity can be a side effect of low-income diets heavy in starch and processed foods.

“If you are on a budget, you are going to buy macaroni, pastas, anything that will put a big meal on the table without a lot of money,” Heishman says. “A lot of seniors we deliver food to don’t buy produce, period, because they can’t afford it. So they are really excited when we come.”

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