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Volunteers ’glean’ local farms for leftover produce to combat hunger

Under a searing blue sky on a recent 90-degree afternoon in the Dry Creek Valley, a group of amateur harvesters met at a local family farm to pick nectar white peaches and shishito peppers to take to local homeless shelters.

The meetup, organized by Healdsburg nonprofit Farm to Pantry, was one of a dozen recent “gleans” the group held at Sonoma County farms.

Gleaning can be defined as gathering leftover food from farms, gardens or orchards to give to those in need. The practice dates back to biblical times, when the poor were commonly guaranteed the right to comb through farmers’ fields after a harvest.

In recent years, volunteer organizations like Farm to Pantry have taken up the ancient tradition as a way to cut back on food waste and donate fresh, local produce to hunger relief efforts.

Now that the coronavirus pandemic is sending thousands more area residents to line up in their cars outside food pantries, while farmers are forced to till unsold crops back into the soil, a growing number of local gleaners are spending more time in the fields to collect and distribute surplus fruits and vegetables.

“You get to be out in the fields at these beautiful farms, but it’s knowing that you’re also doing something really fabulous,” said Kelly Conrad, Farm to Pantry’s marketing manager who joined the glean in Dry Creak Valley. “And when you drop (the food) off and see how grateful the people are, it really comes full circle.”

Duskie Estes, a popular local chef and regular on the Food Network, took over as executive director of the nonprofit in April. She said over 120 volunteers have joined the organization’s gleaning effort since the March start of the pandemic, in addition to the 60 or so people who already were signed up.

Estes said since restaurants were closed indoors for months and food supply channels have been disrupted, many local farmers have been left with an excess of crops. “A lot of farmers, rather than pay the labor to go pick them, would choose to just till it in,” she said.

To make sure less of that food goes to waste, Farm to Pantry has expanded its gleaning operation to over 80 properties throughout Sonoma County. The group drops off the produce it gathers at food pantries and aid organizations including the Redwood Empire Food Bank, Healdsburg Food Pantry, Burbank Housing and Corazon Healdsburg.

David Goodman, chief executive of the Redwood Empire Food Bank, said gleaned produce is often a key ingredient in the pre-made entrees the food pantry makes and distributes.

“It’s fresh, it’s local, and it has shelf life because it’s fresh out of the field,” Goodman said. “The smaller farmers have somewhat specialty crops like kale, leeks and mushrooms, so you get some really delightful produce.”

Goodman said while gleaning probably accounts for just 1% of the food the nonprofit receives, the smaller donations are needed, especially as the organization has seen demand for its emergency food boxes increase by 300% since the pandemic began.

“It’s an opportunity for people to engage in hunger relief that didn’t necessarily have the ability to contribute in other ways,” he said.

Doug Lipton, owner of the family farm in Dry Creek Valley, said instead of selling his produce to local stores, he’s decided during the pandemic to donate his yield.

“We’re in a position where we can afford to give it away to people in need,” he said. “To have (Farm to Pantry) help harvest is great because that's free harvesting when it’s become expensive to get farm labor.”

Gleaning isn’t just happening at farms. Dani Wilcox, founder of Sonoma County Gleaners, said she has in recent months had more local residents ask her volunteer group to come gather fruit and vegetables from their backyard gardens.

“The people that have that surplus feel they won’t let it go to waste this year,” Wilcox said.

Going forward, Estes of Farm to Pantry plans to continue scheduling gleans two to three times a day, six days a week, to keep pace with the record demand at local food banks. The goal is to provide those facing food insecurity with fresh produce they may otherwise not have the opportunity to buy or receive.

“It’s now accessible to everybody. It feels like a great equalizer,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

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