Countywide gleaning program offers alternative for excess produce

Published on Wed, Aug 17, 2011 by Carissa Wright

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Summer is finally here (just in time for school to start), and produce is rapidly ripening on the vine, branch or bush.

If you have too much to handle, the Small Potatoes Gleaning Project offers an option to keep excess fruit and vegetables from going to waste. Local volunteers harvest your produce and deliver it to area food banks to offer a fresh option for families in need.

Right now, program coordinator Max Morange is gearing up for the apple harvest. Apples are one of the most common backyard fruit trees in Washington, and volunteers will be needed throughout the county to keep up with the ripening fruit.
The Small Potatoes project began 10 years ago, Morange said. Small Potatoes currently works with about 35 hunger-relief agencies throughout Whatcom County.

Volunteers prefer to deliver the produce directly to a food bank or soup kitchen that is close to the glean site as well as open on the day of the glean. That way, the produce can be distributed at its peak. The Bellingham Food Bank’s cold storage capabilities also allow it to store and redistribute large quantities of gleaned produce.

The Blaine offshoot began two years ago when Kelle Rankin-Sunter, with Blaine CORE (Community Orchards for Resources and Education), got involved.

“I believe Blaine is a community that cares about itself and wants to be a better place,” Rankin-Sunter said. “Fresh produce and vegetables are the one thing you don’t get at a food bank.”

In 2009, volunteers harvested 1,658 pounds of fruit from six backyards in Blaine. The next year was not as successful, bringing in 461 pounds of fruit from two backyards, but 2010 was an “atrocious” year for home fruit trees, Morange said, and all of Blaine’s gleans were at homes. So far in 2011 volunteers have brought in 57 pounds of berries from one backyard over two separate gleans.

When Blaine CORE began working with Small Potatoes, the latter had recently begun a program to train extra-dedicated gleaning volunteers as “glean captains,” allowing them to lead teams of their own in backyards a little further from the Bellingham base of operations.

“It dovetailed really nicely,” Morange said. The captains are provided with all the necessary supplies (boxes, ladders, fruit scales, picking harnesses) as well as a database of local volunteers maintained by the parent office in Bellingham.

Blaine was a perfect candidate for a satellite program. It’s far enough from Bellingham to make small-scale gleans unpractical, but a great number of homeowners have something edible growing in the yard.

Though she’s just getting started, Blaine’s first glean captain Marla Tuski is excited for the opportunity.

“There’s fruit in our community,” she said. “If we can be involved right in our community ... what a great thing!”

Right now Tuski is reaching out to area churches to spread the word about gleaning opportunities for those who have excess produce as well as for those who’d like to help with the harvest. Churches value community and caring for creation, she said, so it’s a natural fit.

One of the reasons Tuski got involved as a captain was to eliminate transportation waste.

“People were coming up from Bellingham, taking food back to the Bellingham Food Bank to distribute, and bringing the excess back up to Blaine,” she said. “It undoes some of what you’re trying to accomplish.”

With Tuski involved, and the search for glean captains far from finished, Blaine’s gleaning program is looking forward to a busy 2011 harvest.

“It’s been really neat to see the number of folks interested in getting engaged,” Morange said.

Rankin-Sunter said homeowners are sometimes reluctant to sign up for gleaning. They may be concerned that volunteers working on their property might prove a liability risk. However, all volunteers with the Small Potatoes program are fully insured.

“Also, people sometimes think, ‘I don’t have that much extra,’” Rankin-Sunter said. But she recently harvested about 15 pounds of her own snow peas in less than an hour, and at the Blaine Food Bank, that can give five families something fresh to add to their refrigerator.

“That can make a difference in a meal,” she said.

To volunteer with a glean crew or to sign up for gleaning on your property, contact Morange at 360/739-5274 or glean@bellinghamfoodbank.org. Visit Blaine CORE online at www.blaine-core.com.