Saving Food with The Gleaners

gleaning-Hudson-ValleyWasting food is a pet peeve of mine. I go into internal fits of hysterics when I see people in restaurants leave two-thirds of their French fries behind, sentencing them to be interred in landfills, where not even insects can benefit from them.

“Why didn’t they just doggy-bag it?” I’ll apoplectically seethe, beads of consternation forming on my brow. “Or, I dunno, friggin NOT ORDER SO MUCH FOOD.”

I always fantasize about marching over to their table as the food-wasters are signing the bill, staring pugnaciously into their eyes as I consume the fries one-by-one.

My increasing rage at these situations is bringing this fantasy closer to reality, so I was thankful to find out about gleaning, a way of saving food that doesn’t involve confronting people at diners.

Gleaning involves collecting excess produce from farms and redistributing it to the needy. I signed up with Long Table Harvest through their website, and was able to volunteer for the first glean of the year Sept. 14.

So I found myself edging my Nissan around the divots and mounds of the distinctively Nissan-unfriendly terrain as I approached a Ram box van squatting in the morning drizzle at Greig Farm in Red Hook. Audrey Berman, the head Gleaner, hopped out as I pulled up.

Audrey, director of Long Table Harvest, is a tall woman in her early 30s who co-founded the benevolent non-profit in the fall of 2015 with her friend Laura Ingelman. She wears loose brown shorts, a ponytail and a ribbed tank top exposing sprays of underarm hair when I greet her just before 10 a.m.

Long Table collects excess fruits and veggies from Columbia and Dutchess county farms during the harvest months, but also gets produce from CSAs when members forget to pick up their farm shares, as well as wholesale orders that aren’t paid for, Audrey said.

Audrey and her part-time employee Haylan Tsumagari — the only other paid worker at the organization — then distribute the food to 31 food pantries and after-school programs in the two counties.

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Kathryn and Ann harvesting apples during the glean at Greig Farm in Red Hook Aug. 14.

The nonprofit’s aim is to “cultivate social and economic equality in the local food system through dynamic, inclusive and creative collaborations across our diverse rural community,” according to Long Table’s mission statement.

Audrey sent out emails to her volunteer list a week before the glean, saying she hoped for eight responses, and was able to get six people to sign up, including yours truly. The five other volunteers were women, two with children in tow, and three of them had been to gleans before, greeting Audrey warmly as we assembled near the van.

We proceeded to the orchard proper with several of the volunteers crouching in the back of the van, the rest of us following in a short train of cars. The ripe, dewy trees were laid on in rows a few hundred yards long, signs in the row’s front denoting the apple variety and best harvest time.

I maneuvered through the rows with two women, Kathryn Windley and Ann Birckmayer, to get to a row of the Macintosh. Ann, who drove down from Kinderhook for the glean, had harvested with Long Table before, and invited her friend Kathryn up from Milan to experience it for the first time.

Kathryn gardens her own property, tending organic vegetables and apple trees, and said it was important for her to eat “good food.”

“If I can help others do it, all the better,” she said.

Not being an experienced apple-picker, I started collecting apples by twisting them off the trees with one hand and sticking them in the crook of my other arm before carrying them over to a large crate, a method that led to a lot of dropped fruit.

Ann took pity on me and showed me “the traditional method,” lifting the front of her t-shirt to create a pouch to drop the fruit in. My collecting was made further efficient with the introduction of hearty tote bags, and soon my propensity towards competition kicked in as I tried filling up a crate faster than anyone else.

Audrey called food “a basic human right.”

“There’s a need that people have for fresh produce,” she said. “If you go to a food pantry, likely, you’re going to see very limited fresh food options.”

Food pantries receive vittles from regional food banks, which tend to be packaged foods with long shelf-lives, Audrey said.

“We want to make sure that everyone in our community has access to the highest-quality fresh food that’s being grown right here in our backyards,” she said. “…we don’t love the fact that there are food pantries —  we would hope that we wouldn’t really have a need for food pantries —  but we’re at a place today where there’s growing income inequality, not just here but across the country, so that’s playing out on the micro level locally.”

There has been a noticeable increase in the number of people coming to food pantries in the last year, she added.

The concept of gleaning is ancient. The book of Leviticus proscribes the practice, stating farmers should not “gather the gleanings of your harvest” or “reap the very edges of your field,” instead leaving them for the poor and transient. The practice was seen in medieval Europe and discussed in rabbinical writings.

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Audrey (left), Ann and Kathryn load crates of apples after the Sept. 14 glean at Greig Farm in Red Hook.

As noon neared, Kathryn, Ann and I all crunched on Macintoshes while waiting for Audrey to come by with the van to pick up the crates. They were delicious, even to me, who doesn’t really like apples. Either way, I would certain prefer the pristine fruit to the canned and cellophaned fare usually available at food pantries.

We heaved the crates one-by-one onto a digital scale as Audrey took down the numbers on a pad of paper. I guessed we had harvested 900 pounds of apples. After Audrey did some adding, we came out with the real number: 2,038 pounds harvested in a little over two hours.

As we dispersed, Audrey told me she would be dropping off the apples at Rock Solid Church in Hudson and Catholic Charities, and would also be giving a bunch to Feeding the Hudson Valley, held on the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie in October.

So, if you’re one to leave two-thirds of your goddamn French fries sitting on your plate, know that I won’t be stomping over to angrily eat them. But also know, if you’re too full and don’t like eating old fries, there’s another way to make sure food does not go to waste.

Long Table Harvest is always looking for volunteers. You can sign up for gleans here.

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