Breaking the Cycle of Waste and Want

On Tuesday, September 10, 2013, Brian Riddell and Susan Grove visited with Stiles Najac, Coordinator of the Glean Mobile operated by Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County. Here’s what they learned about the program.

Where do you glean from?

We get about 80% from farmers after they have exhausted market opportunities and 20% by mobilizing volunteers to harvest from the field. We do 10-15 field gleanings each season, and yield 2-4 thousand pounds of food at each gleaning. Instead of putting surplus on their “cull pile,” farmers participate so that they don’t waste, they help out, they connect people to the land and local food system, in general and in particular to their farm, which could help with their marketing. Also, it helps farmers learn about their business! The first few years, when I sent a year end letter thanking farmers for the number of pounds they had donated, they were surprised! They hadn’t tracked it, and the information helped them make it a priority to find other market outlets (e.g. processing) for some of their surplus produce. We started working with 3 farms, and now work with 40. We reached out via the cooperative extension network of farms. Some are seasonal, while others only provide one type of produce. I work with at least 6 farms every week, and 15 different farms over the course of a month. There are definitely more farms who would be willing and able to donate if there were more resources to coordinate the pickup and delivery of the produce. I pick up from farms on Monday and Thursday, and distribute to agencies on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. About 65% is distributed to agencies and the remaining 35% is brought to the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley.

Where do you distribute to?

After I pick up produce, I email food pantries to get a sense of who can distribute what I have. Cold storage is one of the barriers for agencies to distribute fresh produce. This eighteen foot truck basically works as mobile refrigeration for Orange County food pantries.

Fresh produce distribution is logistically difficult for the agencies, too. I have found that if there is one volunteer who loves fresh produce that is enough to get them on board. When a food pantry is hesitant, I learned to leave a small box for distribution, and check back the next week. The response is usually so positive, which is sometimes contrary to the expectations of the food pantry, that it convinces them to do the extra work to make the produce available.

There has been such an increase in the number of food pantries, there are so many now. I have 50 agencies who serve low-income or at risk folks. In addition to the food pantries, there are 3-4 soup kitchens, a community dinner each month or so, plus agencies serving pre-school kids, seniors and people diagnosed with HIV. I have to put effort into keeping this list up-to-date and accurate. Emails regularly come back not working. I work with 20 agencies on a regular basis, plus about 10 more at other times.

What are the successes and challenges of coordinating volunteers? Where do you source them from?

Working with volunteers is one of the best parts! The Glean Mobile is connected to groups looking for volunteer opportunities, mostly youth, like 4H, the Girl Scouts, etc. We have 300 volunteers on our list, which has grown through word of mouth and newspaper advertising. These volunteers help with field gleanings. Many of them have had little or no connection with local farms or the food system before, so it’s very educational and rewarding! On the other end, I try to deliver to agencies close to their scheduled distribution so that I can get help from their volunteers to unload the produce.

What have been the key successes? Key challenges?

In 7 seasons, we’ve grown from distributing 77,000 pounds of produce to 220,000 pounds (last year, which was an exceptional year). With the level of resources we have, we can anticipate being able to sustain the distribution of 120,000 – 150,000 pounds of food each year. The program costs up to 50 cents per pound to operate. The costs include staffing, insurance, boxes and fuel, plus overhead like computers, internet, telephone, etc. The program is meeting a community need, is effective, and funders are drawn to it.

I handle the pickups, delivery and repacking on my own, with our refrigerated truck, which runs most of the week (overnight, too) during our busiest season. When I started, the very busy season was 4 months, but it has grown to 6 months. The semi-busy season of 3 months yields about 10,000 pounds per month. Logistically, I have to load the truck a certain way for delivery to agencies, and that doesn’t always correspond with the order of pick up. I transfer produce from the farms bins to our own boxes, which is one of the expenses of the program. I am looking for volunteers who can help me for full days.

It is challenging to handle a large distribution of 1 item. The agency network can absorb 1-2 palettes. The Food Bank of the Hudson Valley can take 1-2 more palettes. City Harvest won’t come for a pick up unless it is heavy enough (~16 palettes – each palette weighs around 2,000 pounds, but it depend on what it is). It is more challenging to find an outlet for 4-16 palettes.

How would you like to see the program change?

Spending more time reintroducing people to fresh food and gaining kitchen skills would be great. This kind of program should grow, and have more trucks and drivers. St. Andrew’s Society has a more regional approach, which could also be helpful – to have a network when there is excess of something. It would be really cool to have a community cooking night when we could do thinks like turn large apple donations into applesauce, but that gets into a the whole new realm of food safety issues. I can envision the food bank having its own farm, with a CSA that supports its operation, and a portion of the revenues of which would allow some of the fresh food to be donated. I could also envision the food bank having its own gleaning department.

How does this program intersect with the long-term change needed to end hunger?

It is a vehicle for a conversation about the issue of hunger and poverty, and plugging people into that. It is making a difference in the cycle of waste and want, breaking it down. Gleaning would be part of a hunger-free community. It is a way of efficiently distributing the resource of food. A hunger-free community will be one that efficiently and effectively distributes resources of all kinds – opportunities, education, employment, income, wealth, food, housing, etc. A community effort is a part of the picture of ending hunger.

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