COLONIAL BEACH, Va. — Farmers are helping food banks offer clients fresh, regionally grown food by allowing groups to glean after they harvest.
At Parker Farms in Westmoreland County, 30 volunteers from Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church in Prince William County recently gleaned dozens of bushels of sweet corn after the biggest ears had been harvested by Parker Farms employees. They combed the fields for smaller, but equally nutritious, ears left behind by the harvesting equipment.
The church’s pastor, Father Brian Bashista, said the charitable hands-on experience goes beyond writing a check. “We’ve had it on our heart to farm-glean for a couple years and finally connected with the wonderful folks here,” he said. “There are very generous farmowners who allow this to happen.”
With such abundance in this country, Bashista said, it’s amazing how much goes to waste.
It’s a simple concept—there is enough fresh produce for food-insecure Virginia families. But complex logistical challenges can prevent perishable items from getting from farms to plates.
Food banks historically have stocked products that are shelf-stable. Yet more than 1 million Virginians who are most likely to experience food insecurity are at higher risk of diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, according to the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.
“Increasingly, we’re seeing the connection between health outcomes and diet,” said Katie Mandes, director of marketing and strategic initiatives for the federation, an organization serving food banks statewide. “We are pushing hard to create a more nutritious diet for those who visit food banks. However, the turnaround time has to fall into place with fresh food that requires refrigeration, so there are a lot of logistical components.”
The federation’s seven food banks work with 1,500 partner agencies like community and church pantries that pick up the food for local distribution. Behind the scenes, food-sourcing specialists, growers and gleaners coordinate with a flurry of phone calls and countless volunteer hours to make it happen.
Mandes said the food bank world previously relied on grocery store donations of excess fresh product, but pandemic-related supply chain problems cut into that source. “One of the lessons we learned because of the pandemic—if you can have fresh food that is local there is less opportunity for that supply to be interrupted.”
Ramping up efforts to work with the farming community to source fresh food has become a priority for the federation. Its leaders work with legislators to develop policy tools that help farmers offset the costs of gleaned produce, like the Virginia Ag Food Assistance Program bill signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in June. The legislation works in tandem with Virginia’s food crop donation tax credit by making funds available to farmers for harvesting, processing, packaging and transporting surplus product.
“Farmers are often willing to donate their excess product, but it’s not free,” Mandes explained. “We’d love to see the farming community plant extra crops in advance, where a percentage goes to food banks.”
In Richmond County, Healthy Harvest Food Bank’s agricultural gleaning program reaches up to 60,000 individuals annually through an extended distribution partnership with Feed More, Virginia Peninsula Food Bank, Blue Ridge Area Food Bank and Food Bank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore. Each year, the organization saves 450,000 to 650,000 pounds of fresh produce from being plowed under.
–Virginia Farm Bureau