Suncoast Project Hopes to Include More Farms and Backyard Growers

Gleaning volunteers help collect vegetables left over from farms' harvests for donation to agencies that feed people in need.

Gleaning volunteers help collect vegetables left over from farms' harvests for donation to agencies that feed people in need.

Although harvesting gathers much of the produce that is grown, as any grower knows, some of the produce is inevitably left behind. Either it was missed during the harvest, or the produce isn't perfect-looking enough to be sold.

This is where gleaning comes into play. Gleaning is a process of gathering the extra produce in order to help prevent food waste and help feed those in need.

Not a new term, the word actually dates back to the Old Testament. Back then, growers were encouraged to leave the edges of the fields unharvested so orphans, widows and travelers could find food.

"Gleaning is a win-win for all," said Don Hall, executive director of Transition Sarasota and coordinator of the Suncoast Gleaning Project. "Farmers get to see all of their harvest put to good use, and they can enjoy a tax benefit of deducting what is donated (they are provided with receipts for full market value). Furthermore, food banks and recipients enjoy the fresh produce, while volunteers reap the benefits of helping out."

The Suncoast Gleaning Project began in October and currently harvests mainly at Jessica's Organic Farm, a five-acre farm in Sarasota.

Every Monday morning, Suncoast Gleaning Project volunteers from ages 6 to 80 meet to harvest the fresh greens that are then given to All Faiths Food Bank.

The produce subsequently is distributed through its network of more than 100 agency partners in Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

Those who volunteer get a bag of produce at the end of their session in appreciation for their efforts.

"Weekly, it's usually about 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of mostly fresh greens," Hall said of the gleaning volume.

He explained that the food is distributed quickly in order to stay fresh. In 28 weeks alone, the group donated 32,683 pounds of produce.

The group is working hard to branch out to more farms and backyard fruit trees, which are in abundance in Florida, by next season.

"There is an abundance of fruit that often ripens all at once. Some homeowners find ways to preserve it or give fruit away to friends and neighbors.

"But many are simply too busy to pick the fruit, and, unfortunately, the extra fruit rots on the ground. That's where we'd like to step in," said Hall who mentioned that homeowners should call for details on how they can assist.

The Society of St. Andrew, founded in 1988, is a national ministry with a nationwide gleaning network. It has a regional office in Orlando.

In 2010 alone, the society had more than 30,000 volunteers who helped pick and gather more than 15 million pounds of fresh food to help those in need.

Because the project coordinators arrange for volunteers to go to the fields, and also for the delivery or pickup of the food by local agencies, the farmer's task is mostly just to agree to the arrangement.

Gleaning is considered a good-faith donation, and those who donate gleaned food in Florida are protected by laws such as the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act and the Jack Davis Florida Restaurant Lending a Helping Hand Act.

Both laws were created to address liability issues and concerns with regard to donated food.

The laws are designed to encourage the donation of food and grocery products to nonprofit organizations for distribution to needy individuals.

In Florida, there are 47,500 commercial farms, utilizing 9.25 million acres.

Moreover, many homeowners have fruit trees, such as orange, mango and grapefruit, that produce more than enough to go around.

Between growers and homeowners, there are a lot of potential participants who can help their community, and reap the many rewards and benefits.

Farmers, growers and volunteers who are interested can contact Hall at the Suncoast Gleaning Project at don@transitionsarasota.org or (941) 408-3374. Or contact the Society of St. Andrew's Orlando office at (407) 650-1956 or sosalf@endhunger.org.