Volunteers gather produce that would be plowed under

Madeline Erwich and Ariana Fernandez waited to board their buses, their arms laden with peppers. They intended to eat them - even though they were the misshapen or discolored kinds that the big stores reject but which many families would be glad to have.

The two Palm Beach Atlantic University students knew they likely never will find themselves in those straits.

Monday’s gleaning event, which involved PBAU, CROS Ministries, and the United Way of Palm Beach County, is part of the national day of service associated with the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The peppers Madeline and Ariana harvested, which will go to Palm Beach County food banks, were shiny and waxy and undented. But they were half red and half green “and don’t look pretty,” Madeline, a sophomore, said. She said the group still had to leave many peppers because it just didn’t have enough trucks for all of them.

“So wasteful,” Ariana, a freshman, said as she stood in line. Nearby, several peppers lay scattered in the dirt.

“It’s crazy. We were not even able to get it all,” said Emily Freeman, a PBAU junior also from the Miami area and in her third year as one of the event’s coordinators.

“The ones that are not the right size, or have a bump or blemish, don’t get to Wal-Mart,” coordinator Kate Magro said. “Normally, the farmer just plows that back into the ground.”

On Sunday, the Palm Beach Post reported South Florida farmers leave millions of pounds of produce to rot in the fields because an abundance of crops has led to plummeting food prices and farmers pretty much lose money hiring the labor and equipment to harvest all their crops.

At the Bedner farm field, far west of Boynton Beach near Hypoluxo Road and U.S. 441, about 115 volunteers gleaned 8,000 pounds - an even four tons — of peppers. Another 60 volunteers, at a Mecca Farms field west of Delray Beach, collected 429 boxes of tomatoes totaling 4,500 pounds; that’s more than two tons and a record for CROS for any gleaning with which it’s been involved.

PBAU, a Christian college, describes it as “workship,” a way to serve neighbors, as its faith dictates. At last year’s gleaning, the college notched its 3 millionth hour of service since its 1968 founding by gathering 3½ tons of produce.

In all, 485 volunteers Monday took part in projects at nine different sites in central and southern Palm Beach County.

Other projects this year, all in the West Palm Beach area: 124 people cleaned grave sites at Woodlawn Cemetery; 52 packed meals at Conniston Middle School; 43 painted walls at Housing Partnership, which finds homes for people battling mental illness; 10 did beautification projects at the Palm Beach Zoo; 4o organized a “block party” at the low-income Rosemary Village neighborhood; 10 built a small garden at Forest Hill High School; and 12 boxed supplies at the Bridge Language Academy for newly-arrived immigrants from Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Monday was overcast and cool as the volunteers walked the rows, filling plastic buckets. But picking conditions often aren’t as moderate. Nearby, other workers bent their backs for a paycheck, and their labors weren’t lost on the volunteers.

“People are doing this for survival,” Ariana said.

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