Citrus floats are the highlight of the annual Florida Citrus Parade in Orlando. Thousands of pounds of oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit — held on with rubber bands, so as not to harm the fruit — create designs such as fish and dollhouses. After the parade, Florida Citrus Sports donates the fruit to the Society of St. Andrew; it is then distributed to agencies that feed the hungry. / Contributed
They crawl through farm fields on their hands and knees; or walk, bent over, for hours – salvaging corn, onions, oranges, and potatoes left behind by mechanical harvesters.
The produce that these volunteers collect after a commercial harvest through “gleaning” goes to food banks across the state for distribution to Florida’s hungry. And it’s more than you may have imagined.
According to the Society of St. Andrew, more than 133 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States annually, because it isn’t pretty enough to sell in a supermarket; or because it’s left behind in fields, since mechanical harvesters can’t collect it all.
Around the country, volunteers for the nonprofit Society of St. Andrew hit the fields to put much of this edible produce on kitchen tables of the needy before it spoils.
It’s a biblical practice that dates back to the Old Testament, when the Law of Moses required farmers to leave 10 percent of their crops behind for widows, orphans, and travelers.
Gleaning follows the seasons
Crops rotate in availability at different times around the state, and volunteers are dispatched accordingly to salvage the produce.
“The (gleaning) season generally goes from October to the beginning of June. In summer, we don’t have anything because it is just too hot and humid,” said Jim Tinkey, the Florida gleaning program coordinator for the Society of St. Andrew and a retired Presbyterian pastor.
The society, founded in 1979 to help feed America’s hungry, salvaged 4.2 million pounds of Florida produce in 2015 and 4.3 million pounds in 2014, Tinkey said.
Sweet corn ripens in October and November and again in May in Central and South Florida; in fall, there are cucumbers. Citrus runs from the beginning of December through March throughout the state, Tinkey said. Cabbage becomes available northwest of Orlando by March, and then backyard trees follow with grapefruit.
“In Central Florida, we are doing corn and onions. Down around Plant City, there are blueberries and Florida peaches, and north of Orlando, there is a U-pick peach farm,” Tinkey said.
Faye and Robert Antis have turned their home in Anthony, Fla., into a distribution center of sorts for food that has been gleaned. Their nonprofit Anointed House of Prayer, near Ocala, often attracts lines of cars filled with people waiting to receive the gleaned food. The Antises take joy in handing out the produce.
A rare bounty
On this day, Robert Antis has brought home a load of honeydew melons from a local farm. His wife is happy to have such a tasty treat to distribute.
“Some people have to spend their money on other things that are more of a necessity, so they don’t get honeydews,” Faye Antis said. “They don’t have the opportunities to get the honeydews or cantaloupe. And this is what it’s all about. We get the food and we give it away.”
Salvaging produce can be grueling work. Because corn stalks in Florida are short, volunteers may spend three or four hours bent over salvaging ripe ears. Cabbage is also plentiful, but the heads grow on the ground, so gleaners must hand-harvest the crop while on their knees.
Said Charles Bandy: “Most everything down here is a ground or row crop. I am from north Georgia and am accustomed to the 8- to 10-foot-tall stalks of corn. Down here, the corn is only about waist-high at maturity.”
Bandy is the food industry manager for Feeding South Florida in Pembroke Park, near Fort Lauderdale, an affiliate of Feeding America. “It can be rather back-breaking, and it’s definitely hot and humid.
“For me, there are people who need to eat, so that is why I am doing the work – to be able to make sure people who need food are able to get food,” he said.
Eli Darkatsh, the food coordinator for Feeding Northeast Florida, said his food bank received 19,817 pounds of produce from gleaning during the past year, plus more than 31,000 additional pounds of citrus collected during a backyard-tree drive.
The need is great
The food is distributed among 180 agencies, such as churches and feeding sites, in Northeast Florida. “Most of the people who get the food are poor families who are living paycheck to paycheck,” Darkatsh said.
“The partnership with the Society of St. Andrew is wonderful because they get volunteers to go out to farms and salvage produce that is still safe to consume, but it’s past the market date at which the farmer can sell to the stores,” Darkatsh said.
“We help the society with collection bins and trucks to distribute it. It’s huge. The benefit of the farms is that the produce has a lot more shelf life and, often, nutritional value.”
In Lake Worth, the nonprofit CROS Ministries (Christians Reaching Out to Society) organizes gleanings on Saturday mornings from late November through July, and on Sunday mornings from mid-January to mid-April. Gleanings typically run from about 8:45 a.m. to noon. The food is distributed to Palm Beach County food banks.
Ken Eunich, community services director for the Mt. Sinai Seventh Day Adventist Church in Orange County, said his food bank has probably served over a half-million people in the past year, with much of the produce coming from gleaning.
“The community where we are located is probably the poorest area in the city of Orlando, in terms of demographics, and it helps them a lot with their groceries,” Eunich said. “I am almost embarrassed at the amount of waste we have in this country – acres and acres as far as you can see of produce. If they don’t (glean) it, it is just plowed under. There is no need for people to be hungry in this country.”
CONTACTS FOR GLEANING
CROS Ministries in Palm Beach County, 561-233-9009; Keith Cutshall
Society of St. Andrew, 800-806-0756; Jim Tinkey
Feeding South Florida 954-518-1836; Charles Bandy
Feeding Northeast Florida, 904-201-4413; Eli Darkatsch