Gleaning Project Puts Fresh Produce on Table

From left, Dusty James, Peggy Cockerill and Lisa Kramer glean romaine lettuce from Jessica's Organic Farm. (Photo by Chris Hawes)

From left, Dusty James, Peggy Cockerill and Lisa Kramer glean romaine lettuce from Jessica's Organic Farm. (Photo by Chris Hawes)

To the farmer who grew it, the romaine lettuce, dandelion greens, cucumbers and basil gathered by volunteers at a local organic farm this week were just trash that would have otherwise been tilled under or composted.

But the volunteers saw the produce differently, as good healthy food, and they collected it to disperse later to needy people in a process known as "gleaning."

Monday's farm visit was the kick-off of an effort to collect 30,000 pounds of fresh produce for area food banks over the next nine months.

Led by the group Transition Sarasota, the volunteers sifted through produce and saved the best during a gleaning session at Jessica's Organic Farm in the 4100 block of 47th Street.

Within a few hours, the produce was on its way to All Faiths Food Bank, where it was distributed Tuesday to some of the 160 agencies and programs stocked by All Faiths.

"It's a win-win-win situation," said Don Hall, leader of Transition Sarasota and coordinator of the SunCoast Gleaning Project. "The food banks get fresh local produce, the farmers get a tax deduction for their donation, and the people who come and help out get to take home a bag of fresh local produce and feel they've made a difference."

Those who gleaned on Monday walked through the farm field carrying knives and bins.

As they encountered produce that was too young to harvest or had been overlooked, they picked it up, cleaned it off and collected it. One week it may be romaine lettuce, cucumbers the next.

Gleaning and the notion of farmers sharing their leftover produce with the less fortunate is a tradition that dates back thousands of years, even to biblical times, and it is a growing trend among organic farmers and volunteers across the country.

In Sarasota, gleaning is gaining steam even among organizations such as the Kiwanis Club that typically are not centered on farming or organics.

This new community project, organizers hope, will make gleaning a continuous and expanding part of the local food distribution system.

In addition to Transition Sarasota, gleaning project sponsors include the Rotary Club of Sarasota and the Peace and Education Center.

Volunteer Carmen Lemus said it felt good to help those who are in need by working in a farm field. "We're feeing them healthy food, which is great, because usually poor people can't afford to buy a lot of natural vegetables."

Volunteers will be encouraged to gather every Monday over the next year to glean from local participating farms. Ideally, Hall said, enough volunteers will join the program to help gather leftover produce from local fruit stands as well.

Rick Hughes, Rotary Club Sarasota president, sees even more ways to build on the program.

"One of the byproducts of the gleaning project is that it's educating the general public on how to become more self-sustained by eating locally grown food." Hughes, said. "And it's shedding light on the fact that there are those who don't have fresh produce."