FARMERS HELP NEEDY FAMILIES THROUGH GLEANING PROGRAM
Although most people probably haven't thought of gleaning since the last time they came across the Bible story about Ruth, the ages-old practice is making a comeback in Alabama and across the nation.
Rachel Gonia is the gleaning coordinator for the Society of St. Andrew (SoSA), a faith-based national non-profit organization that works to recover leftover produce from the fields of farmers.
USDA officials estimate 20 percent of all food grown in the U.S. is wasted, either because it's missed by mechanical harvesting or because it's simply not appealing enough to sell to consumers. SoSA collects and donates the gleaned food to charitable organizations that can distribute it to the needy.
Gonia, a pastor's wife who sees this job as her ministry, recently spoke to the Alabama Farmers Federation State Horticulture Committee where she reported that nearly 12 percent of Alabama households are "food insecure."
"There are lots of people who are working full-time and just don't make ends meet. We get the food to shelters, to food banks--we don't sell it," she said.
Gonia depends on volunteers from local churches, Boy Scout troops, and other charitable organizations to help with the long and hot job of picking the produce. She said she also is thankful for the cooperation of farmers who are willing to share their fields with SoSA. She works hard to bring these two groups together. Volunteers typically get into the fields within 24-48 hours after farmers call.
Gleaning works for everyone, she said, because it gives city people a glimpse of what farming is really like, and it removes excess produce from the fields for farmers. SoSA also collects from farmers markets or anywhere that farmers might have extra produce.
"Anything we pick is something that would go to waste anyway," Gonia said, emphasizing that she wants gleaning to be a positive experience and not a headache for farmers who become involved. "The volunteers go into the field and physically pick everything so farmers aren't out there picking it...lots of the volunteers come from urban areas and bring children, so it's an educational process as well.
"People begin to think differently about what they should expect, and it connects people with farmers."
Volunteers are not the only ones to reap the benefits of this process. Farmers are quick to chime in and say that they have enjoyed their experiences with gleaning.
"It's worked real well for me," said Joe Smith, a Shelby County farmer who owns a U-Pick blueberry operation and has been involved with SoSA in the past. "It goes straight from the farm to their [the needy's] hands. It's a good little program...other folks need a helping hand, and I might be on that end myself one day."
The Alabama Legislature passed legislation in May that will take effect in August and should give farmers peace of mind about liability issues involved with gleaning.
The new law allows farmers to invite non-profit organizations to glean their fields with limitations on the civil liability a farmer may face should an accident occur.
Although SoSA is just getting started in Alabama, it has been around since 1979. In 2003, SoSA gleaned 28.5 million servings of produce for 900,000 families, and is working hard to make sure that these numbers increase. Alabama farmers who would like to participate in the program should contact Rachel Gonia at (256) 234-0876.