Wearing a variety of sun hats and outdoor gear, the gleaners headed out into the fields at Jessica's Organic Farm in Sarasota. Walking single file along an irrigation line, every person carried a large tray and cutting knife.
Their mission: to cut heads of curly escarole lettuce out of the ground one at a time and fill the trays.
Gleaners are people who gather produce left in a field after a harvest. Without the volunteer service of gleaners leftover produce rots in the fields and is wasted.
Transition Sarasota kicked off its annual Suncoast Gleaning Project with volunteers plucking produce for a good cause. The escarole picked recently went straight to All Faiths Food Bank in Sarasota.
“Our first harvest is always the last week in October,” said Don Hall, founder and executive director of Transition Sarasota. “We're doing escarole today, smaller crop than usual because of all the rain.”
He asked for a show of hands of volunteers who had gleaned before. Almost every hand went up in the air.
Hall nodded and said: “People who do this tend to love it and come back again and again.”
Lyn Macbeth of Sarasota and her brother, Scott Macbeth of Bradenton, are repeat gleaners.
“I've been doing this a long time, five to six years,” said Lyn. “I love the fact what we're doing is something good for the community.”
The start of gleaning season this year coincided with Greater Sarasota's Eat Local! Week.
Gleaning season parallels the growing season in this area and lasts from October through April.
Volunteers gather, wash and pack a current menu of kale, collard greens and lettuce. An average glean yields 2,500 pounds of edible produce.
Lyn Macbeth recommended the proper attire for gleaning should include close-toed shoes plus socks along with long trousers as there are weeds with thorns out in the fields. Gloves are a helpful addition along with sunglasses, water and a hat.
Volunteers receive an added plus — they are welcome to make the rounds of leftover produce in bins inside a shed at Jessica's and take home, for free, whatever works for them.
“This is my first time gleaning,” said New College student Mary Koehnk who lives in Miami. “It is great. I'm excited to have something to do in the morning before class and money is short so being able to take produce is very helpful. Yes, I'll be back.”
Transition Sarasota's gleaning happens at Jessica's, an organic 3.5-acre farm. Over the past four years, the gleaning program donated 130,000 pounds of organic fruits and vegetables to All Faiths Food Bank.
Hall hopes to expand.
“This shows potential to be replicated at other local farms,” Hall said. “We're interested in finding other properties. There is a tax write-off for the full market value of produce and farmers are protected from liability by the State of Florida Good Samaritan Law.”
When washed and placed in carrying bins the picked produce goes to All Faiths Food Bank that serves Sarasota and De Soto counties. Within a day or two, this fresh food is bagged and put on the agency's new mobile farm market named Sprouts. The produce quickly ends up on the dinner tables of needy people.
Gleaned produce is augmented with fresh produce donated by local food markets and farms.
“Sprouts travels to different neighborhoods. People get a bag of fresh produce,” said Laura Coyle, director of marketing for All Faiths Food Bank. “It is in keeping with our goal of providing good nutrition.”
Gleaning is done most Monday mornings throughout the season, except for national holidays that fall on a Monday. Then gleaning moves to Tuesdays.
By signing up for the Transition Sarasota newsletter online, volunteers can find out dates and times of all gleaning events.
Transition Sarasota started 4 1/2 years ago. It is part of an international movement as communities seek to become more self-reliant.
To volunteer: Go to www.transitionsrq.org and click on “Join our Mailing List,” then in the subscription form check Suncoast Gleaning Project.
To add your farm: Find out more about participating in the Suncoast Gleaning Project - contact Don Hall at (941) 408-3374.