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Leftovers for a Good Cause

Volunteers glean corn for the needy at Parker Farms. (Bread for the City)

The economic outlook may be improving, but local food pantries are still struggling. Demand is up. So is the pressure to offer more fresh fruits and vegetables that often cost more than canned varieties and processed foods.

Bread for the City is solving the problem through an innovative gleaning program. Each week, between 10 and 25 volunteers visit a local farm to gather fresh produce: cucumbers, corn, cherries, apples, broccoli, even kiwis that would otherwise be thrown away.

Since July, the non-profit has collected more than 25,000 pounds of produce and saved $20,000 it would have otherwise spent on canned fruits and vegetables. By the end of the growing season, it hopes to save $60,000.

The concept of gleaning isn't new, of course; there are several references to it in the Bible. But increasingly, anti-hunger organizations are turning to it to help supplement their food budgets. DC Central Kitchen also gathers food from four farmers markets, including the Sunday FreshFarm Market in Dupont Circle, and gleans about 20,000 pounds of produce each season from two local farms. Martha's Table gleans from several sources, including the 14th & U farmers market.

Most people would be shocked at the amount of food wasted on the farm. Apples that are slightly misshapen or cucumbers with a spot don't meet the standards of perfection for grocery stores – or shoppers at often pricey farmers markets. But there's also plenty of top-quality produce that the farmers can't sell. Oak Grove, Va.-based Parker Farms, which works with Bread for the City, had an excess of 500,000 pounds of corn in the month of July alone, according to the organization.

"The problem is there's no real means for the farmer to pick it and no money to transport it to pantries," said Jeffrey Wankel, Bread for the City's gleaning coordinator. "We provide the muscle with the volunteers, the transportation and the outlet for the excess produce."

In addition to farms, Bread for the City also gleans from the West End farmers market in Alexandria. On Sunday, Wankel picked up more than a ton of 15 kinds of fruits and vegetables.

Both Bread for the City and DC Central Kitchen would like to expand their gleaning programs. The problem isn't volunteers; Wankel says he's overwhelmed by corporate and church groups who want to help out. It's finding money to transport excess food and store it before it is given out to low-income families. "It's pretty staggering when you look at all the food waste," said Wankel. "This puts it to good use."

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  September 24, 2009; 2:45 PM ET
Categories:  Sustainable Food  | Tags: Jane Black  
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