By Michelle Santos
Leafy green vegetables, Brussels sprouts, beets and leeks aren’t typically the kinds of foods available at food banks. Fresh foods are hard to salvage for people in need, even though perfectly edible produce that doesn’t meet grocery store standards is often left to rot in the fields. But a Salinas organization, Ag Against Hunger, has developed some innovative methods for distributing fresh produce to food banks.
The organization runs a unique volunteer gleaning program, collecting surplus fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be left behind and plowed back into the soil. The produce is perfectly edible, but usually nearing expiration, said Karen DeWitt, executive director for the organization.
“It’s not just a bag of lettuce here and there,” said De Witt. “Last year we collected and distributed 12 million pounds of produce.”
Last year volunteers gleaned 450,000 pounds of fresh food left behind by commercial harvesters. That food was not bruised or spoiled. Produce fit for consumption is left behind for subtle reasons, like the age of the field or the prohibitive cost of harvesting a particular crop. Last year, for instance, a grower contacted DeWitt to ask if Ag Against Hunger would harvest a cherry orchard. A late rain ruined about half of the fruit, and paying pickers to sort it would have resulted in a loss for the farm.
Ag Against Hunger distributes to nonprofits and the food banks serving Salinas, Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz Counties.
“There’s a social obligation for us to give out nutritious foods,” said Leslie Sunny, executive director of the Food Bank for Monterey County. While fifty years ago food banks mostly distributed canned goods, “produce is the food of the future,” Sunny said.
Giving out fresh produce is especially important because of growing obesity and diabetes numbers. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, California carries a particularly high obesity burden, with approximately 36 percent of its adult population considered overweight and another 25 percent obese. The Monterey County Obesity Study revealed a 120 percent increase over a twelve-year period for Hispanic children, and sixty-four percent of Salinas’ population is Hispanic.
The keys to maintaining healthy weight, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, are physical activity and healthy eating, which includes consumption of fruits and vegetables. California’s Central Valley is known as the salad bowl of world, yet only 42 percent of Californians reported eating at least five fruit and vegetable servings daily—a recommended starting point—and less than 20 percent of children, according to the 2009 California Dietary Practice Survey.
Every weekend hundreds of volunteers show up to glean—pick remnant fruits and vegetables—to help bring fresh food to people who can’t afford to buy it. A gleaning session lasts from about 9:00 a.m. till noon. At the beginning of the day, volunteers are taught how to harvest, and then they