The ancient practice of gleaning helps feed OC needy population

By Leslie Berkman     10/12/2015


On a warm Saturday morning about 20 men, women and children, wearing wide-brimmed hats and baseball caps to shield them from the sun, crouched in rows of leafy green vines in Irvine’s Great Park.

They lifted the vines, revealing scattered clusters of succulent green beans that they plucked and tossed into crates they dragged beside them. Starting tentatively, they picked up tempo, spreading into the broad, verdant field.

What was going on is described in the biblical law of ancient Israel as gleaning: collecting the leftovers of the harvest that rightfully belong to the needy.

Says Leviticus 19:9-10, “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien.” In Palestine the poor would pick just behind the farmer’s harvesters.

Modern gleaning has a different twist. The pickers in the bean field that Saturday were not hungry widows, orphans or aliens. They were people with good jobs—including an ophthalmologist, a pharmacist and a solar panel salesman. They brought children to learn where food comes from and the joy of helping others. Also, volunteers were permitted to take some of the yield of their labor home for their families.

Still, their main purpose was to feed the poor with beans left behind by the commercial pickers. In an hour and a half the group harvested 550 pounds of beans that they took to a church in Midway City with large numbers of elderly Vietnamese immigrants on fixed incomes.

The farmer who cultivated the beans, A.G. Kamamura––the former California Secretary of Agriculture––said he had paid his own pickers to harvest the field twice and it would not have been economically practical for him to harvest the same vines a third time. So he called for the gleaners. If it weren’t for the volunteer pickers, he says, the leftover beans would have been plowed into the earth.

Kamamura says that he has allowed gleaners onto his fields for 30 years. “We grow it for people to eat and not to throw it away, and so we are happy whenever we are able to work with our volunteers and the food banks,” he says.

Gleanings by volunteers—ranging from church groups to Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and Navy officer reservists––are arranged by Robert Flournoy. On evenings during the work week, Flournoy, a 50-year-old Tustin resident, earns his living as a custodian at Irvine Valley College. He spends the weekdays and weekends collecting and delivering to food banks and community feeding centers the fruit and vegetables that are gleaned by volunteers or donated by farmers.

Farmers are willing to routinely donate large amounts of fruit and vegetables that are less than perfectly shaped or scarred and therefore unacceptable to retailers. The same Saturday that Flournoy’s volunteers gleaned green beans, he gave to Heart of Compassion, a Montebello food bank, 17,000 pounds of zucchini donated by another of his farmer collaborators, Dan Manassero, because the squashes were larger than Manassero’s customers prefer.

Flournoy says his organization, called Loaves and Fishes X 10, which he founded five years ago, delivers about 100,000 pounds of fresh produce to a variety of organizations that serve the needy each year, including church and school food pantries and the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County.

One of Flournoy’s regular volunteers, David De Leon, 29, goes gleaning on weekends with his 9-year-old son.

“It is very spiritual to be able to go out there,” De Leon says. “I tell my son you have to do something beyond yourself. You have to do something for someone you will never meet.” He said he knows the presence of poverty in Santa Ana where he lives.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County Chief Executive Nicole Suydam said currently about 349,000 residents of Orange County, or about 11 percent of the county’s population, are “food insecure.” This designation means that these families may not know where their next meal is coming from and may have to make tough decisions, such as whether to skip meals so they can pay a utility bill or the rent.

Awareness of unmet need in Orange County has fostered a variety of efforts to salvage perishable food that would otherwise go to waste to help the working poor, the elderly on fixed incomes and others who have fallen on hard times.

In another version of gleaning, Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County collects from large retail chains like Ralphs, Albertsons and Wal-Mart produce, meat and dry goods, often past or near their sale expiration date, which it then distributes to more than 320 community partners in Orange County that provide meals or bags of groceries to the poor.

“We rescue food from store locations every day,” says Jason Hatcher, Second Harvest’s resource department supervisor. He says Second Harvest confirms the wholesomeness of the items donated by the stores before offering them to community agencies.

Fruit grown on backyard trees that otherwise would rot is also saved for the poor by the Harvest Club, an arm of the non-profit Orange County Food Access Coalition. Harvest Club’s coordinator of volunteers, Lindsey Harrison, says she has a list of hundreds of homeowners who routinely let volunteers into their backyards to harvest fruit such as lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruit, mangos, persimmons and apples. After each picking, the fruit is taken to the nearest food bank. Harrison said she has a database of 800 volunteers who participate in year-round harvesting events, usually on weekends.

Food banks also send volunteers to farmers markets to collect donations of fruit and vegetables that have not sold by the end of the day. On a recent Sunday several volunteers from St. Timothy Catholic Church in Laguna Niguel met at a farmers market in Aliso Viejo around noon as the vendors began to pack up their stalls. They handed out plastic bags that the vendors rapidly filled with donations of seasonal produce.

“We would throw it out otherwise,” says Shaun Rosendahl, a grower from Reedley, Calif., who said he was donating what he called “challenged fruit” with blemishes, a funny shape or a little over-ripe.

Teresa Cortez, who was selling produce from a farm in San Luis Obispo, was especially generous, always giving volunteers about half of all they collect at that farmers market. Cortez says she gives what she has left—including very good quality produce—although she has the means to keep it until the next market two days later.

“It is better to share it with people who really need it. It makes me feel happy,” she says.

Tina Haeussler, who manages the food pantry at St. Timothy Church, says it is important to have fresh fruit and vegetables to give to the pantry’s clients, mostly “the working poor, the people who do the housekeeping, work in car washes, do gardening.” She says it is a healthful break from canned food that is filled with salt and sugar.

Haeussler says volunteers sort through the produce that comes from the farmers market and anything considered too old for people to consume is donated to the church caretaker, who feeds it to goats and chickens he raises at his home in Temecula. Nothing goes to waste.


How to help

Those who would like to volunteer as gleaners, and farmers who want to make their fields available to gleaners or to donate produce can contact Robert Flournoy at [email protected] or call him at (714) 718-2930.

Those wanting to volunteer to pick backyard fruit or who have backyard trees available for the harvesting of fruit that will be distributed to the needy can contact Lindsey Harrison, the volunteer coordinator for Harvest Club, at [email protected]

Those wanting to help plant, maintain and harvest produce that Second Harvest of Orange County Food Bank grows for feeding the poor can call the organization at (949) 653-2900 and ask for the volunteer department. Or consult the “how to help” section at the website: feedoc.org.