Several times each growing season, Frances Lee-Vandell leaves her White Hall home and travels across the county or across the state to rescue food in danger of spoiling in Virginia’s fields and orchards. It’s not always easy work. Sometimes it’s hot and peaches or apples must be picked up from the ground. Other times, the produce has been collected in a bin in the shade, in need of sorting, crating and delivery. Either way, Lee-Vandell believes it’s important work. She’s 77, and “I have a farm and I’m used to this kind of work,” she said. “But anyone could do it.”
The fruit and vegetables rescued from waste by Lee-Vandell and her fellow volunteers will eventually end up in church pantries, potato drops, free lunches for kids and emergency food programs. This year, she probably won’t venture out because of the pandemic, but the work is more important than ever because of growing economic hardship. In June, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, the central hub serving 25 counties and 7 cities in the western half of Virginia, reported a vastly increased demand for food. Many of the volunteers who, like Lee-Vandell, hope to make a difference for people who are hungry or lacking fresh food, are coordinated by the Society of Saint Andrew, a nationwide charity that began here in Virginia several decades ago.
It was a Bible story that inspired the Methodist pastors who founded the Society. and another one that inspired its name. Gleaning––gathering crops remaining in the field after harvest––was an enforced, divinely ordered right of the poor described in the Old Testament. In fact, farmers were admonished not to go into their fields after harvest to find what they’d overlooked, but to open them up to the poor. And St. Andrew, the apostle who’s best known for being the brother of Simon Peter in the New Testament, was the one who helped bring about the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 with five barley loaves and two fishes from a little boy’s lunch, according to the Gospel of John.
After following a path of extreme simplicity on a farm in Central Virginia, the ministers, Ray Buchanan and Ken Horne, were convinced that poverty, or at least hunger, could be eased if they could find a way to channel imperfect, excess or overlooked fruits, grains and vegetables to people with little to eat. So began the Society of St. Andrew in a cleaned-out sheep shed in Big Island. In the more than 40 years since, the society has kept an eye on what’s in season and mustered volunteers to follow the harvests of everything from apples to zucchini.
The society also works with other groups to publicize the lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables for those impoverished, living in “food deserts” or simply unaware of the relationship between diet and health. Then there’s the financial and environmental cost of food waste. The National Resources Defense Council noted in 2012 that as much as 41 percent of food bought or grown in this country is wasted, most of it ending up in the landfill.
Modern-day gleaners don’t just swarm through the fields and orchards, though. Part of their updated strategy is networking. As the Society of St. Andrew grew, staff and volunteers formed relationships with farmers, big and small, who were also willing to put their produce on a truck to be hauled to a central place for sorting and distribution. Gleaners have been in and out of Crozet-area orchards to gather strawberries, peaches, apples and cherries from the Chiles Family Orchards. Potato farmers frustrated by a virus-stalled food chain were more than glad to send potatoes this way, with Nelson County’s Warehouse Church the stage for a potato give-away in June. “The food comes to us in various ways,” said Sarah Ramey, gleaning director for Virginia.
“Sometimes farmers hear about us and call; sometimes it’s just one crop that they want to contribute because they’ve grown too much; and sometimes they call us year after year.” No gift is too small or eccentric: James Hassmer, who coordinates gleaning for the Society in the Charlottesville area, collects leftovers donated by the vendors at the Charlottesville Farmers Market and is glad to bring oysters and artisanal cheeses as well as standard summer produce to Loaves and Fishes, the Salvation Army or the meals program at JABA. On the more macro level, the Society was one of the agents that coordinated with the tractor-trailer outfits that moved many tons of potatoes from beleaguered farmers to charitable outlets throughout the country last spring. In Virginia, through June, more than a thousand gleaners rescued 773,493 pounds of fresh food donated by 48 farmers and distributed it to hungry people at 81 different sites.
“We’re kind of like the Gumbys of the charitable world,” said Rachael Lee, who directs the Society of St. Andrew’s “Harvest of Hope.” She explained that a great deal of the agency’s success comes from its Gumby-like flexibility. It’s poised to save and distribute food in a lot of different situations, and to respond quickly to a sudden, one-time request from a farmer as well as routine requests from farmers who call them yearly. People register as volunteers and are called on when an event is scheduled for their area.
Harvest of Hope is the program that offers an overnight experience to groups from churches and other organizations. The staff educates them about the problems of world hunger, while also gleaning with them each morning. Those who come make a commitment to spend a day or two eating nutritious food themselves. The hope is that people will come away with a sense of connection between faith and service as well as the knowledge that we have more than enough food to make a huge dent in local hunger.
But it doesn’t take an officially organized group to combat food waste and bring healthy food to the poor. Local volunteer Frances Lee-Vandell believes that donating time for gleaning would also be a good activity for a family. “I’ve seen children as young as four out picking up apples,” she said. “I love to see that.”
To volunteer for a gleaning event, email Jim Hassner at [email protected]
Grace Grocery at Crozet United Methodist Church welcomes donations of fresh produce from local gardens. If you have vegetables to spare, bring them to the church by 2 p.m. August 10 or 24, which are the days the Grocery distributes food at a curbside pick-up every other Monday. They also welcome monetary donations as they expect a surge in clients this fall.