TOP STORY >> Holiday harvests: gleaners fill food-pantry needs
By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer
Ever-changing weather and economic conditions that make farming one of the most challenging occupations also result in huge volumes of food going to waste in this country every year.
Weather extremes can cut into a farmer’s profits. Perfectly timed rains and idyllic temperatures can make for bumper crops which glut the market and depress prices, making harvest unprofitable.
Excessive rains, like the ones plaguing farmers this year, leave fields waterlogged, delaying harvests and damaging crops.
Unsold, weather-blemished food, though often still edible, is plowed under.
“The amount of food left in fields is beyond our imagination,” said Rhonda Sanders, executive director of Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, which is building a network of farmers and volunteer gleaners during a time when some food pantries are having difficulty keeping their shelves stocked, especially with fresh fruits and vegetables. “We need to access food at every point we can, and this is a great way to do that.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 27 percent of all food produced in this country is wasted, about 1.5 tons per year for every person, while more than 17 percent of Americans live in poverty and are at risk of going hungry.
GETTING FOOD TO THE NEEDY
So far this year, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance has distributed 285,000 pounds of gleaned vegetables and fruit to Arkansas feeding agencies. The Society of St. Andrew, a national food recovery organization, has provided assistance in developing the Arkansas program, now in its second year.
Farmers who participate in gleaning programs are able to offset their losses – or even realize a modest profit – by claiming half the fair market value of donated food as a tax write-off.
Educating farmers about gleaning’s potential advantages can be slow work. Finding volunteers who can be available on short notice can be even harder. Their reward is getting to take the gleaned food back to a food pantry or soup kitchen in their community.
“The challenge is to work within the time frame of a farmer,” Sanders said. “Volunteers have got to be really ready. The best match is to pair a farmer with volunteers nearby.”
Some farmers have concerns about liability associated with gleaning, but according to Jackie Usey, program coordinator for Society of St. Andrew, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects them. “We’ve have never had so much as a complaint from a bee sting in 30 years.”
GLEANERS WORK IN EL PASO, SCOTT
Oscar Jones and his wife, Marisue, of El Paso, who are no longer able to work their apple and pear orchard, decided to give gleaning a try again this year after having problems with an earlier volunteer group.
This time, all went well with a crew from Stallion Transportation in Beebe. In fact, it went so well that the volunteers may partner with the Joneses to care for the aging orchard and improve its productivity.
It is not about the tax advantage, Jones said. “We just don’t like to see it fall on the ground and donated just because some people could get some good out of it.”
Dale O’Neal, 53, who farms 250 acres in Scott, picked 2009 as the year to get back into growing vegetables, along with his mainstays, soybeans, wheat and rice. He has always raised a big vegetable garden for his family and enjoys sharing the bounty with relatives and friends.
Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, O’Neal had worked alongside his father tending acres of vegetables, which they sold at a roadside stand. It was a boom time for Arkansas row croppers, because grocery store chains with their international, year-round bazaar of every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable had not yet made it to small towns.
Produce was mainly what was available in season locally. The O’Neals couldn’t grow enough to meet the demand from customers hungry for their summer crops such as sweet corn, peas and melons. They even tilled up their front yard, he recalled. “They would be waiting for us; we’d be sold out by noon.”
When gas prices spiked to $5 a gallon in mid-2008, O’Neal read a news article about the high cost of trucking fresh produce from California to Arkansas. It convinced him that growing vegetables could once again be lucrative, especially with the resurging consumer demand for fresh, local produce. He was sure he could grow those same crops, save on transportation, cut out the middle man and beat the grocery store prices by selling direct at a local farmers market.
Looking back, O’Neal now says, “This has been the worst year to restart and get into this again.”
The record-setting rains brought him both abundance and ruin.
“At one time we had 7,000 watermelons on the ground averaging 25 pounds apiece,” O’Neal said. But four Tuesdays in a row, thunderstorms kept customers away at the Little Rock Farmers Market. “It was devastating to everyone there,” he recalled.
“We’d trade out among the other vendors for things we needed.” The rest, he hauled back home. Another time, he lined up what looked like a sure sale of a semi-trailer load of 1,000 watermelons to a Memphis distributor only to be turned away because three other deliveries had come in ahead of his that day.
It had been difficult enough even getting the crops out of the fields. Six laborers who helped with spring plantings disappeared at the time of a big watermelon harvest. O’Neal harvested what he could with a hurriedly assembled crew.
One rainy Tuesday at the Little Rock Farmers Market, O’Neal had so many watermelons left over that he was mentally preparing for a “watermelon giveaway” that weekend back home, when Michelle Shope, director of food sourcing and logistics for Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, stopped by to talk with him about the gleaning program. She explained about the tax incentive and how he would be linked with a crew of volunteers to do the gleaning and distribute the food.
FOOD PANTRY IN SHERWOOD HELPS OUT
Shope asked Dale Prater, who for 10 years has run Central Baptist Church’s food pantry in Sherwood, if he would be interested.
“They were looking for one food pantry that would take this project on and not mind a lot of hard work,” Prater recalled.
Since mid-June, Prater and volunteers have gone as often as three times a week to O’Neal’s and have gathered more than 56,000 pounds of vegetables that otherwise would have been wasted – watermelon, cantaloupe, peas, squash, okra, corn, peppers, cucumbers and pumpkins.
The food went to Fish Net Ministries in Jacksonville and Gloryland Church food pantry in Lonoke and several other programs in North Little Rock and Conway, including two transitional homes for former drug addicts. Prater and volunteers also make home deliveries to shut-ins at a North Little Rock housing project.
For Prater, O’Neal’s crops were an answer to his prayers.
“The demand for food is increasing at the same time that the amount of (donated) food is decreasing,” Prater said. “This is such a blessing to everyone. The O’Neals have been so giving. They’ve said, ‘Here it is – we want to share it with everyone.’”
About 50 families each month count on the Central Baptist Church food pantry for help. Since the economy went into recession, Prater has seen a difference in the people who line up each Wednesday afternoon at the food pantry door. There are more middle-class folks, homeowners and professional people who say they have never before been on public assistance of any kind. Layoffs are throwing more families into crisis, he said.
“Last week, there was a couple with three kids, both had lost their jobs that Monday,” Prater said.
On a recent Wednesday, Prater and volunteer Fred Davidson distributed food baskets containing summer squash from O’Neal’s farm along with spring onions, canned goods, and tilapia from Arkansas Food Bank. One North Little Rock grandmother has been coming there for about a year to get food for herself and her grandchild who lives with her.
“I am on disability; this place surely helps out,” she said, as she paused to inventory the sack full of groceries. “Got onions, that’s good. At the store, they’re high. Back in the summer there was watermelon, cucumbers and squash. It was delicious.
Today, there’s squash. I like to put that with my fried potatoes.”
Several others getting food that day were single moms or grandmothers who provide a home for their children and grandchildren. They were there because a crisis – a layoff or medical bills – had wrecked an already fragile family economy.
A woman who identified herself only as “Juanita” says the food is for herself, a son and his three children, who live with her.
“It doesn’t carry us very far, but it sure does help. I cook at my neighbor’s house because I don’t have electricity or gas. I am trying to get my disability started.”
Juanita is thin with short-cropped hair. “I am a stage 1 brain cancer survivor.” She pivots and touches a lump on her shoulder, then points to her arm. “I have two more tumors that need surgery. I am kind of surviving right now.”
A woman from Jacksonville explained that she turned to the food pantry after getting laid off in January from her job as a retail manager. She cares for her daughter, who “has been in and out of the hospital,” and two grandchildren, who all live with her.
In all its years of operation, the food pantry has never turned anyone away for lack of food. But it has been touch and go, at times lately. “We have been scraping and scrapping for nonperishable goods and it isn’t even the busy season yet,” Prater said.
A SILVER LINING FOR ONE FARMER
Without the gleaning program, O’Neal says more than half of his crops would have gone to waste. Instead, he made money. With the federal tax write-off, he will be able to claim 50 cents on the dollar of fair-market value for the gleaned food.
O’Neal says he may even come out better growing vegetables than soybeans grown on the same land last year – despite the weather.
“I won’t know until my tax people gather up all the numbers, but I am a pretty good estimator,” he said, “I’ll probably do this again next year. You always plant a whole lot more than you can harvest, so this worked out good for everybody.”
He understands some farmers’ reluctance to let outsiders come on their land. “I’m old school. I don’t worry about everything that could happen. If I’ve got it, I want to share it.”