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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.

They've picked at least 50 different kinds of fruits and vegetables, from the ubiquitous apples or chard to rarities like kumquats.

It's difficult to find statistics on how much food is gleaned every year in the United States, but it is clear there is plenty of lost, discarded and leftover food out there to be salvaged. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 20 percent of all the nation's food produced every year goes to waste at some point between the farm and the table.

At the same time, there are about 49 million Americans who face some difficulty in getting enough food to eat.

Local gleaners say that even in the relative affluence of Wine Country, there are many people who need help in putting enough food on the table, even if that help comes in the form of just a few bushels at a time from someone's backyard.

"I couldn't stand to see Mother Nature produce such a beautiful bounty and see it go to waste," said Sebastopol artist Aletha Soule, who organized the Slow Harvest gleaning group in 2009.

Since then, her small group, only about nine volunteers, has collected more than 35,000 pounds of food and delivered it to food banks and agencies helping the hungry.

Soule started out as a volunteer at the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa, where she fielded frequent phone calls from landowners with excess produce who offered to donate their unneeded food.

The food bank, however, can't afford to hire crews to harvest excess crops. Soule decided she could make a difference by providing her own volunteer crew, teaming up with No Barriers, a group for developmentally disabled adults who already volunteered in other capacities at the food bank.

"I was really trying to make a connection: take all this extra bounty we have out there and get it to the people who can use it," Soule said.

Pam Heidorn, director of No Barriers, said the gleaning trips are a great way for her members to get out of the food bank offices and make a difference in the community.

"We have so much fun, and when the crops come in we enjoy going to all the beautiful different locations in Sonoma County," she said.

While there is no national count of the number of gleaning organizations, it appears to be a widespread practice, with groups of various sizes all over the country. A quick Internet search on the word "gleaning" turns up organizations of all types and sizes.

Gleaning tends to be a highly local phenomenon, often conducted by small groups, said Sue Sigler, executive director of the California Association of Food Banks. Regions vary widely in how much fresh produce is available in fields and how much volunteer labor is available to harvest and transport it before it spoils.

"It's not a highly efficient model, and for that reason a food bank would be hard-pressed to meet its complete needs" from gleaned products, she said, though food relief agencies always welcome donations of fresh produce.

Don Lindsay, director of operations for the Redwood Empire Food Bank, said gleaned products account for only a fraction of the half-million pounds of fresh produce that move through the food bank every year. Most of their produce comes from unsold or cosmetically imperfect products from larger farms, he said.

But even if gleaning isn't a major contributor to the fight against hunger, Love and other gleaners say every bit helps, and it allows people who have extra produce to feel like they are doing something significant.

"We are incredibly fortunate in this county because we have this abundance year-round," Love said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Added April 30, 2013

* A story in Sunday's Green Living section misstated the names of gleaning groups led by Kaarin Lee and Aletha Soule. Lee's Group is known as Waste Not, Want Not and Soule's is Slow Harvest.

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