And So Ye Shall Reap

Collecting Leftover Crops Puts Food On The Plates Of Hungry Arizonans

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger. -- The Fourth Book of Moses

GLEANING TO FEED the less fortunate--collecting leftover crops from reaped fields--is a concept nearly as old as recorded history, going back to a day when people helped each other for mutual survival. Fortunately for Southern Arizonans who still go to bed hungry--the very young, the very old, the very poor--second harvest efforts are beginning to make a difference in the 21st century.

"After farm fields have been commercially harvested," says Jean Fox, former gleaning project coordinator at Tucson's Community Food Bank, "we look for produce that may no longer be marketable, but is still edible. If it's no longer pretty, but still palatable, we'll glean from one tree or 100 acres."

They've done so for over a decade with volunteer labor partnering with the Departments of Agriculture and Corrections to pick fields of left-behind produce that can feed the hungry instead of being left to rot in the furrows.

And that food no sooner hits the warehouse than it's gone. "Food goes out as fast as it comes in," says Fox, who calls the gleaning effort "a win-win proposition for everybody."

"The gleaning program is an important aspect of our response to the problem of hunger," says Punch Woods, food bank executive director. "It seems to be like a bottomless pit. No matter how much comes through the loading dock doors from the fields and volunteer pickers, it just as quickly goes out the front door to hungry Tucsonans' tables."

In the fiscal year just ended, 66 million pounds of gleaned food were transported to those in need throughout the state. By way of graphic representation, "That's enough semi-trucks to form a straight-line bumper-to-bumper interstate convoy 29 miles long," says Clark Skeans, director of second harvest program operations throughout Arizona.

A dichotomy of data has developed about haves and have-nots. According to the Associated Press, prosperity abounds. "The record-breaking economy is in its longest-ever streak of uninterrupted growth. Americans are enjoying low inflation, plentiful jobs and rising incomes," AP reports. Yet, while the federal government for the third straight year recently posted another record surplus, an estimated 12 million households still have to worry about getting enough to eat.

In fact, a recent Department of Agriculture study of the nation's eating patterns reported more than one out of 10 of the households acknowledged experiencing from "some" to "severe" hunger or having poor diets because they couldn't afford better food.

Vice President Al Gore, speaking at a national summit on the use of wasted food, told reporters, "This is an appalling figure that must energize us as a nation to do more. We already have enough food in America to feed everyone."

Agriculture Department researchers have previously estimated that 96 billion pounds of food, more than a quarter of the food produced in America, goes to waste each year. If the amount recovered through second harvest efforts increased by one-third, it would provide enough to feed roughly 450,000 people a day for a year. "Gleaning," says Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, "is one beneficial way of giving everyone a direct hand in being part of the solution to hungry households."

It's worked that way in southeastern Arizona since 1987 when the food bank began using leftovers from different growing seasons to enrich food baskets for the needy with ripe, but still edible, fruit and produce. Food bank director Woods took advantage of a $50,000 federal government grant offer for local food banks to start up gleaning programs. The grant monies bought a truck to expedite collections from the field and pay for first-year operations.

"That initial seed money has helped us bring in literally millions of dollars worth of produce on an annual basis," Woods says. "I'd estimate currently we have about $15 million worth of food flowing through the food bank, and I'd bet the gleaning program brings in up to $3 million of this amount. These are fresh fruits and vegetables, foods not available to persons on a low-income diet. They're the more expensive things that folks with sparse incomes are less likely to buy because they use up too much of their limited food funds."

JEAN FOX, A former east coast city dweller who, by her own admission, "had no inkling of what do to on a farm," was named gleaning coordinator when the program formalized in 1989. She has witnessed a transformation as separate food banks gave up turf battles and coalesced into a statewide army of harvesters.

"Before we really got started, the food bank was handling about 40,000 pounds a year donated by good-hearted residents who picked fruits and vegetables from backyard gardens and citrus groves and dropped it off for us to distribute," she says. "Once the program officially began, our numbers quantified. My first field was a lettuce farm in Marana. Five volunteers, two migrant farm workers, my two kids and myself showed up day after day and eventually picked over 35,000 pounds of lettuce from that one farm."

Employing a concept of strength in unity, the Arizona Gleaning Coalition now combines resources of all major food banks in the state with several governmental agencies, including the Department of Corrections, which provides inmate labor assistance on large-scale harvest projects. The state's success in pooling resources for the common good has drawn national recognition by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and America's Second Harvest National Food Bank Network.

Earlier this year, the Arizona Community Action Association reported that over 170 million pounds of produce had been collected and distributed by the Statewide Gleaning Project since 1993. The Association of Arizona Food Banks, a statewide organization with nine warehouses, provided 106 million pounds of food last year, distributed in 90 Arizona communities.

The Southeast Arizona Food Bank Warehouse in Willcox is recognized as the leader in food distribution for all programs throughout the state. "Nine million pounds of food moved through their doors last year," says gleaning project coordinator Cindy Gentry, "an increase of about 30 percent over the year before." In addition to being at the top of the list in poundage distributed, the Willcox organization operated at a five-cents-per-pound cost, lowest in the state.

Nationally, one in 10 hungry Americans rely on food banks and other emergency sustenance food programs. According to ACAA statistics, "In 1999, more than 895,000 people, or roughly 18.5 percent of the state of Arizona's populace, experienced hunger." The percentage is even higher in Tucson because of lower wages and a higher percentage of Pima County children living in poverty.

"We have so many people who work for a living, but still live in poverty--the working poor," says Woods. "Suffering from hunger doesn't necessarily mean famine or starvation. It ranges from occasionally missing a meal to a constant stomach rumble because there is nothing available to quell the emptiness. 'Food insecure' is how we phrase it."

According to Woods, as many as 150,000 Tucson residents don't have enough food on hand to meet their meal needs every day of the week.

The food bank issues Hunger Facts bulletins that are alarming: One out of four children in Pima County will miss a meal today, and 60 percent of the food distributed by the Food Bank is consumed by children.

"The kind of hunger we have in the local community is people who miss meals because there's nothing in the cupboard and no money to buy anything ... or people who end up eating oatmeal three times a day because that's all that's left in the larder," says Woods. "Food dollars are often the last funds spent by low-income families. Everything else has to be paid first--rent, utilities, transportation--and whatever money is left is for food. Often, there is nothing left to fund that category."

LOTS OF CATEGORIES are represented in the gleaning program, which will pick or accept donations of any usable food. "We never say no to a donation, from rutabagas to parsnips," says Fox. "If it's a hundred pounds or 10,000, our answer is always yes."

A bumper crop of potatoes 10 years ago at a farm in Eloy provides a good example. "We made that trip daily for three months," says Fox, "and it was worthwhile. We recovered over 800,000 pounds of spuds and could have doubled that number if we'd been able to move faster to gather and distribute that kind of volume."

Many of those potatoes rotted in the field because there weren't enough people to pick them. Realizing that food recovery is time-driven and labor-intensive, Rey Martinez, director of the food bank program serving Cochise, Santa Cruz, Graham and Greenlee counties, opened the door to a new supply of pickers: prison labor.

"The program is trouble free," he says of the inmate labor. "We had one job where we picked cabbages at one end of the field and watermelons at the other. That project took 50 prisoners from Fort Grant, the Douglas prison and the state prison in Safford."

Inmates and volunteers recently spent three days at Buckelew Farm west of Tucson gleaning hundreds of post-Halloween pumpkins from a 45-acre patch. "Probably about 100,000 pounds," says farm owner Nick Buckelew, who annually grows over a million pounds of pumpkins. "I hate to see produce go to waste, and the food bank is a good cause. If we can help others, we're all for it."

Prisoners are also involved in a new phase of creativity through another aspect of food salvage, a grant-funded dehydration project representing a final opportunity to save fruits and vegetables that may be on their last legs.

The dehydrator machine is in near-constant use, according to Terry Henry, who supervises the uniformed labor. "About a dozen inmates work in our kitchen," she says. "We've done everything--apples, strawberries, kiwis, bananas, tomatoes, chiles, pumpkins, squash and onions. We load up to 1,500 pounds each day of whatever product is available from nearby farms or orchards."

Volunteer Francisco Sanchez, a former Army food supervisor, calls on his 40 years of cooking experience to teach recipients in an adjacent kitchen classroom how to prepare the dehydrated products.

Food bank representatives have also visited produce brokers in Nogales, soliciting damaged, but still edible, products from their coolers. At first food bank volunteers collected whatever leftovers the produce brokers had left in the refrigerated units. As the program grew, participating shippers (who get a tax break for their contributions) grew in numbers and volume of donations so they now contribute several million pounds of produce donations annually.

VOLUNTEERS, THE WORKER bees who glean the grapefruit and harvest the jalapeños, are still the core of second harvest operations. "We could not exist without them," says Volunteer Services Coordinator Alison Schumacher in Tucson. "We have 130 volunteers on a regular basis, and another 100 who participate in special events, who contribute nearly 5,000 hours per month. They do everything from gleaning in the field to repackaging bulk produce in the warehouse and packing food boxes in the distribution center. They are loyal, dependable, dedicated, and the absolute backbone of our crusade against hunger."

In southeastern Arizona, Martinez praises his cadre of contributors for their dedication to service. "Out of one room last year, we distributed over 1.5 million pounds of food," says Martinez. "That whole program was run by a single paid employee. The rest of the people who made the project so successful were all volunteer workers."

Volunteers come from all walks of life, ranging from retirees and snowbirds to teachers and their students to community-minded individuals who want to help make a difference. "One of our volunteers is a woman now in her 19th year of helping," says Schumacher. "Another is a 90-year-old whose son not only drives her here to help, but stays and volunteers his services too."

Whether it's legal language or a love of the Lord that lures harvesters to the fields, once there they work toward a common goal. Tucsonans Bob and Mary Wille have been food bank volunteers since they got married about 10 years ago. "We've picked pumpkins, squash and citrus," says Bob Wille. "Whenever they need us, we volunteer. We believe the Lord wants us to serve others, and this gives us an opportunity to make a contribution to that philosophy."

Linda Sheehan subscribes to the same "give something back" credo and puts her three sons (Michael, age 6; Daniel, age 9; and Chris, age 14) to work with her. "The boys work hard and have fun doing it," she says. "This is one way to give of yourself to make a difference for others. It's a healthy feeling to help out another human being."

It's a do-unto-others lifestyle that many figure would make a better world if it were implemented more often. "I was brought up that way," Fox says, "taught to help others." The rewards for such behavior are numerous, illustrated by one incident out of many.

"We were coming back from Willcox after spending a day gleaning apples," says Fox, who alerted an agency dealing with the elderly that they were on their way with fresh fruit. When the harvesters arrived, there were over 100 senior citizens lined up and waiting with bags and boxes.

As Fox dispensed a bag of apples, she remembers, "One little old lady in her 80s wanted to hug me. You'd have thought I'd given her a bag of gold." The appreciative recipient told Fox and her fellow gleaners, "I live on a fixed income, and most of the time it's a flip of a coin to see whether I'm going to pay bills or buy food. I haven't been able to afford apples in over two years."

TUCSON IS NO longer a small town, but the Old Pueblo maintains some of its small-town values even as it continues to grow. Woods says the Chronicle of Philanthropy named Tucson as one of three top cities recognized for giving per capita. "It's a generous community that not only donates food, but also contributes both time and money," says Woods.

For people who have the time and the inclination to pick apples or dig potatoes or gather pumpkins, the gleaning program can find a farm field that could use extra workers. "You raise your hand to participate, and we'll find a place for you," says current gleaning coordinator Manny Hermosillo.

For those who would like to make a financial donation, it's welcome in the form of cash, check or credit card. "Tucson is a generous community with a lot of big hearts," says Woods. "We receive a lot of 10- and 20-dollar contributions. Add them together and they become a crucial operating tool. We may get a $30,000 truckload of cereal donated from Battle Creek that costs $3,000 to bring to Tucson. Having these dollars allows us to take advantage of these opportunities and reap a 10-to-1 return."

For those wishing to make food donations, there are two major seasonal drives aimed at replenishing food bank warehouse shelves: a postal-carrier campaign held in the spring and a fall food drive conducted by TUSD and other schools. These events bring in nearly half a million food items. In addition, many other organizations sponsor smaller campaigns, especially during the holiday season.

Personal hand-delivered food contributions are accepted at the 150,000-square-foot warehouse located at 3003 South Country Club Road. This is the home of the Multi-Service Center, where food bank volunteers and staff oversee eight food programs ranging from infant and family food boxes to distribution of federal surplus foods.

To volunteer to work the fields, call the Food Bank at 622-0525.

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