Volunteers glean picked-over fields to feed the hungry
At the end of every crop’s season, farmers pick the fruits or vegetables that are pretty enough to sell in the grocery store. Once they are done, they plow under the leftover produce.
Often, it can amount to truck beds of crops being wasted. But in Haywood County, a group of volunteers is hoping to glean what they can from picked over fields and gardens to help feel the county’s hungry.
“There is no garden too small or farm too big,” said 66-year-old Waynesville resident Dick Sheets.
Sheets and his neighbor Jim Geenen, also 66, started and are heading a collective of Haywood County gleaners. With help from the Society of St. Andrews, a nonprofit that focuses specifically on gathering leftover produce and crops to feed the hungry, the group is picking up steam.
The idea of creating a stable band of Haywood County gleaners kicked off a couple months ago when Geenen met seasoned gleaner Bill Walker, the Western North Carolina gleaning coordinator with the Society of St. Andrews. Walker has worked to find volunteers in the region to gather unwanted crops for pantries, but Geenen and Sheets wanted to start a group that specifically helped people in Haywood County who visit places including The Open Door in Waynesville and the Community Kitchen in Canton.
So, they started looking for farmers and gardeners all around the county who would let them pick over their harvest and for volunteers to go out and actually do the labor. Then, Geenen and Sheets connect with food pantries to see who needs the crops they’ve gleaned.
“I think all of us wanted to give back to the community,” Sheets said. “A lot of us are retired guys who have time.”
By doing this, they hope to cut down on the amount of food wasted annually. About 40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted, according to a USDA-funded study.
“It’s not a problem that we don’t have enough food to feed people. We have a distribution problem,” Geenen said.
The leftover food that farmers won’t use is always fresh, but sometimes, they can’t sell it because it won’t appeal to a consumer’s eye. Danny Barrett, owner of The Ten Acre Garden in Bethel, said the seasonal help he hires is often surprised that no one wants the bushels of crops remaining in the field.
“They can’t believe it. That nobody will eat that. Well, that’s America for you,” Barrett said. “As far as freshness goes, that is what you should be more concerned about than eye appeal.”
Now, with the creation of the Haywood County gleaners group, Barrett’s fresh but unattractive produce will stock the shelves of county food pantries and feed the hungry.
“I had stuff that somebody needed to eat,” Barrett said.
People like Barrett who donate crops can receive a government tax break, just like if they wrote a nonprofit a check.
Not knowing how many farmers will allow them to glean or how much food will be left, Geenen said they have not set any specific goals this year for how much they would like to gather.
“The sky’s the limit, but we are also trying to be realistic,” Geenen said.
However, their aim is to simply keep growing, increase the number of farmers and volunteers. Thus far, the Haywood County group has about a dozen volunteers. However, people are still needed. Not everyone can make it at certain times or on certain days because of work or other obligations.
Geenen said they also want to get people who frequent Haywood County pantries and soup kitchen to help pick the crops that they will later enjoy.
“We want to get them involved in the ownership process, in the gleaning process,” Geenen said.
The group is looking for anyone who might help their efforts — even county inmates.
A few low-risk inmates, people in jail for nonviolent crimes such as failure to pay child support or multiple driving violations, have already gone out for a couple of corn-picking sessions under the constant supervision of a Haywood County Sheriff’s Office employee.
Sgt. Mary Fisher said a few inmates have spent a total of nine or 10 hours in fields gathering bushels upon bushels, which was then given to the county food pantries.
“It was a lot,” Fisher said. “Probably 70 rows.”
Typically stuck in the jail, the inmates have enjoyed that time out and found the labor rewarding, she said.
“This is the first time that they have gone out and worked with something like this,” Fisher said. “They felt like they were giving back to the community.”
Inmates at the county jail participate in other programs, including trash pickup. However, this is the first program of its kind where the fruits of their labor benefit the hungry of Haywood County, which is why the sheriff’s office wanted to get involved.
“I think at the end of the day, if we can somehow give back to the community and enhance quality of life for the citizens of Haywood County, we need to be involved in that,” said Jeff Haynes, chief deputy for the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office. “We are also instilling good values that hopefully our inmates will take when they leave.”
In addition to gathering food for pantries and soup kitchens, the Haywood County gleaners will work with the N.C. Extension Office to teach people how to freeze dry and can the produce to extend its life. When food sources dry up in the winter, people can still have some of the fresh produce from summer and fall.
However, they are still looking for places to donate their kitchen spaces for people to can food in as well as the necessary equipment.
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