Central San Joaquin Valley gleaning programs see resurgence

The Fresno BeeJuly 19, 2013 

Gleaning organizations have long been used by nonprofit groups and food banks statewide to harvest surplus fruits and vegetables for those in need. The largest groups have hundreds of volunteers who harvest hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce a year.

But in the central San Joaquin Valley, the gleaning of fields and backyard trees has slowed to a crawl because of a lack of volunteers.

Without the extra hands, organizers say, fruit from many homeowner's trees is going unharvested, dropping to the ground and rotting. The same problem exists on some farms when prices drop below the cost of harvesting and farmers are forced to leave the crop in the field, with no one else available to pick it.

Food waste advocates say gleaning programs serve an important role in helping to reduce the problem of food waste in the U.S. And in the Valley with its abundance of backyard trees and farms, the potential for gleaning can be huge.

That's why local anti-hunger and food waste advocates are launching a renewed effort to recruit able-bodied gleaners, homeowners and farmers.

Advocates don't want to a repeat of what happened in early June when a Tulare County farmer disced nearly nine acres of green beans because he could not find enough volunteers to pick the food.

"It just doesn't make a lot of sense, especially when you have so many people who are hungry in this Valley," said Peter Mesias, farm manager for Abe-El Produce in Orosi. "We had a few people come out, but that was it."

Local hunger advocates say that decades ago they could have easily picked the green beans, but many of their volunteers have gotten older and are unable to climb ladders or stoop down to harvest vegetables. Several Valley gleaning groups have transitioned into organizations that collect culled fruit from packing houses to distribute to those in need.

Visalia Gleaning Seniors used to have two crews of senior citizens harvesting fruit. But Greg Chinn, the group's general manager, said the organization found it more efficient to get produce from the packing houses and cold storages.

"We just don't have the people to go out in the field anymore," Chinn said. "There is so much coming from the packing sheds."

Also no longer gleaning from the field is Porterville Gleaners.

"We function differently now," said William Self, of Porterville Gleaners. "But that does not mean there are not opportunities out there and there are still lots of hungry people."

Food bank officials say a 2011 study showed Fresno with the second-highest food hardship rate in the nation at 24.3%.

Creating a connection between the abundance of food and getting it to those who need it the most is what motivates anti-hunger advocate Sarah Ramirez of Pixley.

Last year, Ramirez created BeHealthy Tulare, a grassroots organization working to create a healthier community and raise awareness about food waste and hunger.

Gleaning became part of Ramirez's mission after she and her husband noticed dozens of backyard citrus trees loaded with oranges, many that were falling to the ground.

"We knew that there was this huge need and we saw this huge excess," Ramirez said. "So why not figure out a way to get that food to the people who need it?"

Ramirez found several cooperative South Valley homeowners who allowed her small group of volunteers to harvest the oranges. One of their largest gleanings yielded 3,500 pounds of fruit in one day.

The fruit was donated to several groups, including FoodLink for Tulare County, the LightHouse Rescue Mission and a senior center.

Ramirez would like to do more, including gleaning from farms, but she is limited because of the small number of volunteers. Most of her gleaners are high school students or church members.

Although her organization is relatively new, word has spread about BeHealthy Tulare and she can't keep up with the requests for gleaning.

"We have received several calls from people wanting to donate the fruit from their trees, but we have had to turn them down because we don't have the volunteers when we need them," Ramirez said.

Most of her volunteers are only available on the weekends.

"But we get calls from people who want someone right away and by the week's end the fruit has already fallen off the tree," she said.

Organizers acknowledge that one of the keys in creating a successful gleaning organization is finding committed volunteers.

Craig Diserens, executive director of Village Harvest in San Jose, said his organization attracts volunteers who want to make a difference in their communities and who understand the issues of food waste and hunger. They harvest three to five times a week, with dozens of volunteers attending the events.

"People discover and get attracted to this organization because it is really a simple idea," he said. "You spend a few hours in the morning and it can make an immediate difference in the community."

Village Harvest's volunteers gleaned 231,291 pounds of produce last year.

Other gleaning groups, such as Glean SLO, have targeted farms as well as backyard trees. Since it started in 2010, the San Luis Obispo group has steadily increased the amount of produce it's harvested. Last year it gleaned 100,000 pounds of food and to date it has picked 82,000 pounds.

Jeanine Lacore, program coordinator for the San Luis Obispo program, says that establishing strong relationships with farmers has been a key part of the group's success. And alleviating concerns about liability is also important.

In many cases liability insurance held by the nonprofit, or liability waivers that do not hold the property owner responsible for an accident, take care of the concerns.

"It is about building trust with farmers," Lacore said.

Organizers of the Fresno Community Food Bank are hoping to leverage their existing relationships with the farming community to establish their gleaning program.

The food bank routinely accepts food donations from farming organizations and packing houses. The food bank, one of the region's largest, provides more than 24 million pounds of food each year to families throughout Fresno, Madera, Kings and Kern counties.

But Jacyln Pack, food resources coordinator at the food bank, said there is also an untold amount of fruit that never makes it to the packing house.

California tree fruit industry officials estimate that between 20% to 50% of the fruit is wasted. Although a portion isn't edible, most is.

"One of my goals is to get more fresh produce into our system because that is the one food item that our clients will go without," Pack said. "So if farmers are forced to leave fruit on their trees and we have a way to get that product, then we are going to try."

Pack and other food bank staff will try and tap as many groups as they can to recruit volunteers, including high schools, colleges and business groups.

Already, Pack has lined up the food banks first gleaning event in August: a corn field in the Hanford area.

"This is going to be a test for us, to see if we can make this work," Pack said.

Volunteer Rachel Carpenter of Fresno also is hopeful the Valley's gleaning efforts take root. She is motivated by wanting to reduce the amount of waste in the food system.

"I know that no one wants to go out and sweat, especially when it is so hot," Carpenter said. "But we should not be allowing food to rot when it can be given to someone who needs it the most."

Get involved

BeHealthy Tulare:

Go to behealthytulare.com/ or Be Healthy Tulare on Facebook

Community Food Bank: Go to communityfoodbank.net or call (559) 237-3663

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6327, brodriguez@fresnobee.com or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter.

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