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Grass-roots groups collect donated and excess produce to feed Sonoma County's hungry

  • Farm to Pantry founder Melita Love picks a few remaining oranges that can be reached at the tree top in Healdsburg, Calif., on April 2, 2013 for free distribution to local food pantries, schools, shelters and people in need. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

When Melita Love of Healdsburg looked into a food bank collection basket at a grocery store checkout line, she was shocked by what she saw.

"I saw all this processed food, and I looked at what I was getting — all this fresh produce — and I thought, 'This is not right,'" Love said.

From that simple observation a few years ago grew a small movement, a group of volunteers known as Farm to Pantry, devoted to collecting and distributing fresh produce that farmers and gardeners in the area don't want or can't harvest.

Since 2008, Farm to Pantry has collected about 51 tons of food, Love said, much of it from homeowners with small orchards or overflowing gardens they cannot fully harvest. The proceeds were donated to food banks and clubs around Healdsburg and, in good seasons, other parts of the county.

"We're not feeding a lot of people. ... But we're conserving what might have been wasted," she said.

The idea, known as gleaning, is as old as agriculture itself: collecting the leftovers from the main harvest after the farmers and their crews have finished their work.

So important was the practice in ancient times that the concept appears frequently in the Bible. In Leviticus, God even commands the farmers of Israel to avoid harvesting their crops too thoroughly and to be sure to leave some useful produce behind.

"Thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger," God instructs Moses.

There are at least half a dozen gleaning groups around Sonoma County. There are dozens in the Bay Area and possibly thousands across the country.

Love said she and her fellow gleaners are active year-round, although summer and fall harvest seasons are particularly busy.

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