Gleaning: An ancient way to feed today's hungry

By Jessica Connor

There in the field their cheerful leaves poke out, ready for the harvest: Lush, leafy cabbage. Tender spring beets and turnip greens. Juicy red strawberries. Fresh squash.

In fields across South Carolina, farmhands “ and machines “ are hard at work gathering fresh fruits and vegetables for sale to grocery stores and restaurants or at produce stands.

Following behind them, gathering up the lesser and the looked-over crops, come the gleaners: men, women and children who collect produce left in the field after the harvest, and then give that food to the hungry.

Working to mobilize those gleaners in South Carolina is the Rev. Ashley McCoy-Bruce, the S.C. program coordinator for the Society of St. Andrew, an Advance Special Ministry of The United Methodist Church. For McCoy-Bruce, gleaning is a little-known but highly effective way to combat hunger. And she is doing her part to make sure all South Carolina United Methodists know about gleaning and inspire them to get involved.

Over 25 percent of the food grown in this country is wasted, McCoy-Bruce said, noting South Carolina has a higher rate of hunger and food insecurity than the national average. If we gleaned all the edible food that we right now waste, we wouldn t have hunger.

Farms, volunteers are ˜generous

Gleaning the fields has been going on since biblical days, but many people often don t know what it is “ or that it can be a viable and easy solution to hunger.

McCoy-Bruce has been in extension ministry with SoSA since 2008, expanding from Upstate to full program coordinator in 2011. The Gleaning Network is her primary focus. She organizes volunteer gleaners in communities, neighborhoods and churches, connecting them with farmers who let them come in after a harvest to glean.

The farmer calls and says, ˜I need a gleaning! and I send out an email with all the details, McCoy-Bruce said.

Some gleaners have a designated day of the week or month they like to pick. Other gleaners are flexible, showing up whenever a gleaning opportunity arises.

Elizabeth Ledford who, with her husband, Billy, owns Beechwood Farms in Marietta, often lets McCoy-Bruce and her volunteers glean their fields.

If we ve got something going to waste, we like people to be able to eat it, Ledford said.

McCoy-Bruce said many farms like Beechwood are extremely generous in allowing them to come in after a harvest and take the leftover food. Sometimes, the volunteers are permitted to follow along in the harvesters footsteps. Other times, they come a day or two after a picking, collecting leftover crops and then bringing them to local agencies that immediately get the food in the hands of the hungry.

I m amazed at how beautiful and wonderful the produce is, McCoy-Bruce said, inspecting some mustard greens at Beechwood. Like the tomatoes “ they re small but beautiful. It s just unbelievable how much food is wasted sometimes.

Some farms choose not to allow gleaners on their property because they fear liability or theft issues, even though SoSA waives their liability. Other farms don t know about gleaning.

But those farms who do are able to help more people than they can imagine, and the gleaners are humbled and grateful.

We are doing it so we can help people eat, McCoy-Bruce said.

An ˜easy ministry

McCoy-Bruce calls gleaning an easy ministry that anyone can do, even children. Her own children have been gleaning since they were 5 and 7.

She also said it is a ministry that offers a huge return for volunteers “ they put in two hours of work and have a ton of food that can immediately help someone.

McCoy-Bruce noted several ways United Methodists across the state can help end hunger. First, churches can start gleaning circles, where they organize local volunteers to put in time gleaning at local farms. McCoy-Bruce offers training to new field leaders and supervisors all over the state who ultimately lead these circles.

For those who can t or don t want to help glean the fields, prayer is needed, as well as financial support.

Beyond gleaning, churches can help with other SoSA hunger ministry efforts, such as serving as a site for a potato drop, where a tractor-trailer bring a massive load of potatoes to a church or warehouse and volunteers gather them into bags and transport them to local hunger agencies.

Churches can also organize Harvest of Hope retreats and mission events for youth or intergenerational groups, plus generally educate their members about hunger and the many solutions available. (See box, this page.)

Giving people the most nutritious food we have right from the farm is what we should do, McCoy-Bruce said, pointing out the simple math. Here is the food; here are people who are hungry. Let s put two and two together.

For more information about starting a gleaning circle or working with SoSA to end hunger, call 864-640-7171 or email [email protected] .

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