The Hippo


May 29, 2020








NH Gleans gathers fresh, local produce for donation. Courtesy photo.

Modern day gleaners
NH Gleans smoothes out the edges of its farm-to-food-pantry efforts


 What you don’t see at farm stands and farmers markets: the fruits and veggies that don’t quite make the cut, the ones that are just fine to eat but have small nicks or bruises that make them unsellable.

“I look at all these tomatoes, and they are the kind of thing if you got cracks and splits it can go bad very  quickly. You want to do something with them but there is so much more you have to do,” said Tom Mitchell, owner of Ledge Top Farm in Wilton. 
That’s where NH Gleans comes in. Its work isn’t quite the same as the ancient practice of peasants collecting leftover crops from farmers, but it isn’t far off.
Last year, Mitchell’s leftovers didn’t go to waste, and they won’t this season either. He’ll be visited by Hazel Gershfield, who will pick up his unsellable but edible produce and take it to a local food pantry.
Across the country, more than 100 billion pounds of food — up to 20 percent of the nation’s food supply — were thrown away in the U.S. in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But at the same time, 49 million people, including more than 16 million children, were at risk of going hungry. 
Locally, the NH Farm to School program, hosted by the University of New Hampshire, is trying to balance those statistics. It started the NH Gleans program last year after an anonymous donor provided funding. 
From summer to late fall, six host organizations send out their gleaning coordinators and volunteers to collect excess food and bridge the connection between local farms, gardeners, other producers and Hillsborough and Merrimack counties’ food pantries. One way they do it is by going to farmers markets as they close up for the day, taking leftovers and immediately distributing them to nearby food pantries so the food stays as fresh as possible.
In the program’s first year, some of the organizers ran in to logistical challenges, but they are hoping to overcome the growing pains this season. 
“We tried different techniques and learned what not to do again,” said program coordinator Stacey Purslow. “We learned, don’t glean on the western part of the county then deliver to eastern part. That’s inefficient, expensive, and takes up too much time. Try to be more strategic in where [we’re] gleaning from and where the product is going.”
Some coordinators found that a 10-hours-a-week schedule wasn’t enough time to get all the work done, and the hours should increase during peak gleaning season in the summer and fall. 
Last year approximately 30,000 pounds of fresh food was gleaned. Addressing these snags should mean significantly more food — in fact, this year NH Gleans is aiming to increase that output by 50 percent. 
Gershfield is the coordinator for the Hillsborough County Conservation District, one of the program’s host organizations. As a mother of seven who tries to raise her kids on healthy food, she found the job to be a natural extension of something that’s already important to her. She spent a lot of her time last year hanging out at farmers markets, introducing herself, spreading the word to the public and collecting in the fields. 
“It’s a new concept here in New Hampshire,” she said. “So spreading the word here is going to take a while. … It took a while to become trusted by farmers and get my name out, but eventually I was able to go to a few farms and fields to get food. I can feel the trust is there already.” 
The area’s food pantries and soup kitchens are always looking for fresh produce. Before NH Gleans began, the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter had asked farmers and backyard gardeners to plant an extra row of crops for it. In the past, it has initiated fundraisers asking shoppers at farmers markets to buy $5 worth of food to donate. It also collects perishables daily from local grocers, but that’s not usually local produce, said Carol Weeks, community outreach manager.
“They love it. The little kids will come in and say, ‘Oh look at all those carrots. ... A lot  of kids don’t see fresh food anymore. They don’t know what it is, so when we get it it’s quite impressive for people.” 
As the season changes, so too does the produce that makes its way from the farm to the food pantry. The inventory will partially depend on what farmers have in excess. In late June and early July  the biggest finds are mostly greens, kale, radishes and small turnips, and as the season goes on potatoes, broccoli and carrots and tomatoes will be added to the mix.
Hershfield collected 4,500 pounds last year, and this time around she is hoping to glean even more, though she’s hesitant to set a goal weight. Come fall, apples will be the big score. 
“Last year was a really heavy apple year,” she said, “and apples are very heavy.”  
As seen in the June 26, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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