Photo: Nathaniel Smart runs back to picking peppers after dropping off a bag
By Blake Farmer
PIKEVILLE, Tenn. -- The Society of St. Andrew is reviving an ancient practice to feed the poor – gleaning.
Old Testament scriptures kept farmers from picking their fields and vineyards clean. The book of Deuteronomy requires the edges to be left for orphans, widows and travelers. Modern day gleaning is more about preventing would-be waste.
Food gets left in the field for all kinds of reasons. Mechanical harvesting misses a lot. Sometimes the crops aren’t pretty enough for supermarket shelves. All in all, the USDA’s totals are hard to comprehend.
“The statistics are that 96 billion pounds of food are left, this is pre-consumer food, goes to waste in this country,” says Linda Tozer of the Society of St. Andrew.
The group has been around for decades, but it’s just now starting a gleaning operation in Tennessee.
“What we are trying to do is build a network that will take that food that would not make it to market for a variety of reasons, and get it to agencies that are feeding the hungry,” she says.
At Jackson Farms in Pikeville, Nathaniel Smart heaves a mesh bag of red and green bell peppers from a scale and drops it on a growing pile. This five-year-old and his dad are key to what makes gleaning work – free labor.
“Let me find a big ripe one,” Smart says as he reaches into the dense plant. “To pick it, I just pull it.”
There’s nothing wrong with these peppers, but they’re not worth the farmer’s time. Johnny Jackson has more than he knows what to do with in a chocked-full storehouse.
“I’ve got 40 boxes in there to sell now,” he says. “If it wasn’t, I’d be picking more right now.”
Jackson has a logistics problem he didn’t plan for when he planted his fields. Demand is low and Old Man Winter is around the corner.
“We’re past due for a killing frost in this area,” he says. “So it could get it any time.”
Jackson has nothing to lose. The motivation has little do with an biblical command, though he’s happy to feed the hungry. He’ll also pocket a tax deduction.
Farmers usually can’t afford to give their crops away, Jackson says. And when they can, it’s a last minute decision to cut losses.
Jackson gave the Society of St. Andrew three days before he’d start tilling the fields under. On short notice, the group gathered a preacher, a little Girl Scout troop and a few neighbors like Mary Beth Sanders.
“I just got an email, some farmer friends passing around word of this activity,” she explains.
Sanders’ frayed straw hat gives her away as someone who has spent some time in the field. Even she is surprised by how much goes to waste.
“I mean, you pass farms up here all the time, just peppers rotting on the ground or on the vine,” Sanders says. “It’s not cool.”
Gleaners harvest more than 350 pounds of squash at Jackson Farms.
Plenty for Picking
The scales have weighed more than a thousand pounds of produce. Volunteers pack the rescued rations in a church van and a pick up truck, bound for the food pantry and the county jail.
Linda Tozer says her gleaners could spend all weekend in these fields, but she has her own logistics problem. There’s no one else lined up to use the food.
“Isn’t that horrible?” Tozer asks. “But we have done this much, and that’s more than if we hadn’t shown up, so that’s the way we’ve got to look at it.”
Tozer’s goal is to glean two million pounds of food in Tennessee next year. That’s about one serving of vegetables for every person in the state. Even that, she points out, is just a fraction of what will never leave the farm.