On Saturday mornings when other people are sleeping in, Ginny Somerville heads to the black muck farms in Belle Glade to pick sweet corn or the sandy soils in west Boynton Beach to pluck bell peppers from rows of plants.
The West Palm Beach resident is an executive secretary, not a farmworker. But she’s one of thousands of people who volunteer from November through July to glean produce for the hungry. The food is distributed through local food banks and their partners.
The surplus crops are what’s left after machine harvesting or because there is a glut and the market price has dropped too low to pay people to pick and pack the perfectly fine produce.
“The farmers are very generous. We met some of them. It gives me a good feeling to be able to do something for other people,” said Somerville who volunteers through CROS Ministries, based in Lake Worth.
Florida’s farms, especially those in Palm Beach County, a major winter vegetable region, produce an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Yet an estimated one-fifth of it never makes it to the supply chain. It’s either cosmetically blemished or doesn’t meet the standards retailers demand. Another fifth is thrown away by consumers or restaurants.
Palm Beach County is known for its wealth, high-end developments, beaches and golf courses, but plenty of people go hungry.
“More than 200,000 people in Palm Beach County don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Karen Erren, executive director of the Palm Beach County Food Bank.
The last few months have been especially difficult as Hurricane Irma in September impacted some residents’ already tight budgets.
“For our residents on the edge of making it work each month, independently, it really was a blow. In addition to unexpected expenses from having to prepare for the storm and the difficulty of navigating that week, folks who lost electricity at work were not able to earn wages,” Erren said.
Produce obtained through gleaning is especially critical to filling the needs because of its quality and nutritional value. The food bank provides recipes for items such as butternut squash, bok choy or other less familiar vegetables, Erren said.
Keith Cutshall, CROS Ministries gleaning director, said the non-profit works with about nine growers in Palm Beach, Martin and Hendry counties, with more than 90 percent of the crops coming from Palm Beach County.
Some farms, such as R.C. Hatton in Pahokee, have been hosting gleaning groups for years.
“Every weekend groups come to our farms and harvest sweet corn,” said Paul Allen, a co-partner in the farm with Roger Hatton.
CROS, helping to feed the hungry for close to 40 years, has run a gleaning program since 2003. In addition to gleaning at vegetable farms, the group harvests the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority’s mango grove in Lantana each summer.
“Last year, more than 497,000 pounds of produce was recovered. That is barely scratching the surface,” Cutshall said.
This year is proving to be a bigger challenge, as Hurricane Irma pushed back the plantings. Gleaning began in December instead of November. The produce is distributed through the Palm Beach County Food Bank and House of Hope in Martin County.
About 3,000 people volunteered to glean with CROS last year. Some picked crops only once or twice, while others are regulars. Volunteers receive an email on Tuesday about where the gleaning will take place on Saturday and Sunday mornings. They provide their own transportation.
“We allow kids accompanied by their parents, as young as five or six. One thing we like about gleanings is that it can be a family event where people are unplugged. Families can serve together,” Cutshall said. “Some of our most dedicated people retirees.”
On Martin Luther King Day, Heritage Farms Produce, the sales company for Roth Farms and JEM Farms partnered with CROS Ministries and Society of St. Andrew-Florida to host a gleaning event at Roth Farms in Belle Glade. About 35 Palm Beach Atlantic University students picked 7,000 pounds of bok choy — enough to provide more than 21,000 servings.
Emily Freeman, a PBAU senior, has participated in four gleaning events with CROS. She was amazed at how much food the volunteers were able to gather.
“The reason I participate in gleaning events is because it is fun, and I love watching students be amazed as I was,” Freeman said.
Ryan Roth, vice president, Roth Farms, said, “Gleaning is a good way for us to give back.”
Mike Elmore, program coordinator of Orlando-based Society of St. Andrew, a non-profit whose main goal is the feed the hungry, said, “Last year alone we saved over 3.7 million pounds of produce throughout the state.”
The farms were connected with CROS and St. Andrew through Melanie Mason, a food recovery specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Mason said the department’s food recovery program was launched in November, and it’s believed to be the only program of its kind in the nation. The staff has been contacting farmers and working with non-profits to bring them together. They also tell farmers about the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act and Florida law which protects those who donate, recover and distribute excess food.
This fiscal year the Florida Legislature appropriated $6.1 million to assist food banks and feeding programs, agriculture department spokesman Aaron Keller said.
Some farms donate produce their workers have already picked and packed directly to food banks.
Thomas LaSalle of Boca Raton-based Thomas Produce, said last year the company donated 4 million pounds of surplus produce to Feeding Florida, which has a network of 199 food banks, including Feeding South Florida. Over the last six years, the company, one of the Southeast’s largest growers, has donated close to 20 million pounds.
If a cucumber is too curved, or a pepper is bruised, the retailers don’t want it. Thomas donates large quantities of green beans. The beans are machine-harvested and stores won’t accept broken beans. So, they are boxed up to be donated.
“You are going to chop them anyway. People buy snipped beans in the store,” LaSalle said. “It has to be close to perfect to make it into the stores.”
Nancy Roe, grower, Farming Systems Research, west of Boynton Beach, said the farm has worked with gleaners for 17 years, donating everything from butternut squash to cherry tomatoes. Recently a group of 15 CROS volunteers picked 50 bushels of tomatoes.
“The plants were older and we were done with them,” Roe said. “Hopefully somebody can use the things we are giving them.”
Farming Systems Research also donates produce directly to Caring Kitchen, another CROS project.
CROS volunteer Marilyn Stone, of Lake Worth, a retired minister who has been gleaning for four years, said she enjoys going to the farms and meeting like-minded people, even though wading through corn rows and handling heavy heads of cabbage can be tricky.
“When you have a good crew, you fill all the bins in less than three hours. That is always great. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is going to come from,” Stone said. “I feel like there are a lot of people who do. If we can get some fresh produce to them, that is just fantastic.”
Gleaning with CROS Ministries
Gleanings take place on Saturday mornings from late November through most of July. Sunday mornings from mid- January to mid-April. Large groups can schedule a gleaning gathering on a Monday or Friday with advance notice. Mango gleaning in June will have some weekday dates.
Gleanings are typically 8:45am until 11:30am. Directions are emailed out weekly. Participants are responsible for getting to the fields themselves.
Examples of the produce gleaned include: beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet corn, green peppers, potatoes, avocados, mangoes, and whatever else might become available. This produce is then distributed free of charge by the Palm Beach County Food Bank to local hunger programs.
To more information, go to crosministries.org, or call 561-233-9009.