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A gleaning culture in the Northern Neck

Posted on Tuesday, August 12, 2014 at 3:36 pm

The book of Ruth in the Old Testament describes a process of food gathering called gleaning that many today neither understand nor see the need.

Unless, of course, you are from the Northern Neck and happen to know Lance Barton, who is the CEO of the Northern Neck Food Bank.

Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested, or from fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest.

Two forms of gleaning exist.  The first, as depicted by Jean-François Millet’s painting, The Gleaners, is where people are out in the field gathering what is left after the harvest.

Under Hebrew law, harvesters were required to leave the corners of their fields so the gleaners could gather food for themselves.  Widows, as in the Biblical documentation of Ruth and Naomi, and those less fortunate, were invited to come and gather.

Today, this process continues, organized in this area by the Northern Neck Food Bank. The amount of food left in fields varies with crops like broccoli, leaving as much as 25 percent not gathered.  Vegetables not picked or gathered are plowed under.  While there is an abundance of food in the field to be gleaned, there are not enough volunteers to do the work.

Rod Parker of Parker Farms said, “There is so much left over in the field after harvest, but with the number volunteers at present, it can’t be all gathered.”

Parker started participating in the gleaning process over 25 years ago in Maryland.  Working with organizations such as the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network (MAGNET), it is not uncommon for one million pounds of produce to be gathered from left overs found in the field.

There are some farmers, such as Ron Forrester and the Boyles of Garner Produce, who actually plant for the gleaners.  In Westmoreland County, farmers grow various varieties of greens for gleaning, even though it is not one of the commodity foods they produce.

Few places sell dented cans and if they do, fewer and fewer people buy them. Everything must look pretty.

An easy form of gleaning practiced by Parker at the Northern Neck Farmer’s Market is where cosmetically damaged produce that the larger grocery stores will not buy because of appearance is taken to the Food Bank.

Cat face tomatoes may be ugly, but they taste the same as the most perfect, unbruised specimen out of the field.  The work of harvest is done and the transporting to the food bank is all that remains to be done.

There are many different motivators driving people to come out and gather crops.  Volunteers come with churches and religious institutions making up a large part of the work force.  Some say the nice feeling they get when doing this sort of thing motivates them, while others feel a Scriptural mandate to help feed the hungry by assisting in gathering food for distribution to the Food Bank.  Several farmers reported that no one likes to go through the process of planting and raising food just to see it go to waste in a field.

“There is great blessing in helping people,” remarked Parker. ”We get blessed providing food people need and they get blessed receiving it.  When God is in the middle, blessing is there.”

The center of the gleaning efforts is the Northern Neck Food Bank, which collects the produce and distributes it.  In 2012, Barton realized the cost of processed goods was too expensive to continue.   Processed foods were costing the Food Bank 19 cents a pound versus fresh produce, which cost five cents a pound.   Cost was a factor determining that 40 percent of the distributed foods should be fresh.    Because of the health situation of many who receive distributions, utilizing fresh produce has offered a more nutritious diet, making the Northern Neck unique in the way things are done.

Barton said that the Northern Neck Food Bank with the “Farm to Food” concept has brought national attention to what is being done in Warsaw.  Barton is attending the Feeding  America Conference in St. Louis, where he will be presenting the concept of gleaning and distribution to the heads of 200 food banks from around the country.

Not one to rest on laurels, Barton reported improvements are being made to improve the gleaning process.  A recent study showed at present, 40 percent of the process is wasted effort, but very fixable.  Though expensive, such items as a tractor with a trailer so that volunteers are not wasting time walking back and forth to empty containers would make the gleaning process two and one half times more efficient, giving the capital outlay of equipment a shorter payback cycle.

The community of the Northern Neck continues to grow in their efforts to provide for those who are in need.  With a population needing to concentrate more on nutrition that hunger, the gleaners and the Northern Neck Food Bank are paving the way for more to have a better quality of food for their tables.  Located in Warsaw, the Northern Neck Food Bank welcomes any and all volunteers.