Written by Joanna Gardner
The word “gleaning” probably conjures biblical images. But the practice is actually alive and well in New Jersey in the modern day.
In particular, an organization called Farmers Against Hunger, a program of the New Jersey Agricultural Society, is making it easy for volunteers to participate in this ancient practice and for farmers to do good with their surplus.
Catholic Charities workers pick cucumbers in Pedricktown on their Staff Day of Mercy, July 14. Some of the vegetables went to food pantries, and the rest were distributed by Farmers Against Hunger to agencies that feed the hungry throughout the region. Photo by Joanna Gardner
Gleaning is the practice of allowing the poor to harvest the surplus produce from a farmer’s field. Farmers Against Hunger works with some 70 farmers across the state who have signed on with the organization, and sends approximately 1,200 volunteers per year to glean the excess produce as it becomes available. The organization then transports the food to a network of banks and pantries that distribute the produce to the hungry.
Last year, Farmers Against Hunger “rescued” 1.4 million pounds of produce, through gleaning and direct donations from farms, grocery stores, and wholesalers. The organization has been working in New Jersey for the last 20 years.
Staff members from Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden got to experience gleaning first-hand during their Staff Day of Mercy on July 14. The team of 20 volunteers spent the day at Porch Farms in Pedricktown. Farmer Brian Porch had a surplus crop of cucumbers and called up Farmers Against Hunger to donate.
Over the span of two hours the group picked 2,600 pounds of cucumbers. Some went to Catholic Charities’ food pantries, and the rest were distributed by Farmers Against Hunger to agencies that feed the hungry throughout the region.
Elyse Yerrapathruni is the Gleaning and Volunteer Coordinator for Farmers Against Hunger and served as the group’s guide for the day. She has worked with the organization for the last five years, three of them as a staff member.
“It’s really great to have the opportunity to help people in need,” Yerrapathruni said. “It’s nice to be able to help break the cycle and give people fresh, healthy produce to supplement what they usually get.”
In Salem County, Catholic Charities operates a wellness program that stresses the importance of healthy eating and provides nutrition education to residents. More than simply providing food to those who are hungry, the program aims to break the link between food insecurity and poor health that exists for many families living in poverty.
Salem County has one of the highest food insecurity rates in the state, with more than 14 percent of its population experiencing a lack of access to consistent, adequate food, according to Feeding America.
The program has forged connections with gleaning and emergency food organizations throughout the county and aims to help connect perspective volunteers with opportunities to donate fresh foods.
“So many people in Salem don’t have access to fresh food and vegetables,” said Camille Cuentas, outreach coordinator for the Salem Wellness program. “What we did that day is going to help so many people. That really is mercy in action.”
Maria Desher is a case manager with Catholic Charities Welfare to Work program. Her typical day doesn’t include picking vegetables for the hungry, but, she said, it made a nice change. “It’s a different way to do good.”
Learn more about Catholic Charities Healthy Eating program in Salem County online at CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/Salem-Health.