In the fields, at farmer's markets, in food pantries and schools, gleaners are proving there's plenty of local fruits and vegetables to go around.
On a sunny September afternoon, Hazel Gershfield is out with her husband and kids at Hungry Bear Farm in Mason, to do a little gleaning.
“We're taking food that might otherwise go to waste, good food, and redistributing it to people who can't afford to go to the farmers market or belong to a CSA or go to the health food store,” she explains.
Gleaning is the practice of gathering extra produce, what's left behind after a harvest or what a farmer doesn’t think is worth it, financially, to harvest. It’s a practice that goes way back, mentioned multiple times in the Bible. But, Gershfield clarifies, “This is like the modern-day advent of gleaning."
Her family is gathering produce, from farms and farmer's markets, to donate to food pantries, soup kitchens, retirement homes, schools – anywhere local food isn’t easily found.
Gershfield is Hillsborough County's regional gleaning coordinator for a statewide effort called New Hampshire Gleans. The New Hampshire Farm to School Program, based at the University of New Hampshire, received an anonymous donation to start NH Gleans this past spring.
“We have six paid coordinators around the state, so six regions of the state,” says Stacey Purslow, who heads the gleaning program. “And they're out there gathering information, being in contact with farmers, talking with food pantries. Having paid coordinators can really get that food to those in need."
Purslow says the coordinators also put together teams of gleaning volunteers. It's a huge effort, involving a lot of people and thousands of pounds of food.
NH Gleans may be new, but it's able to draw from the experience of older organizations, like the Boston Area Gleaners, Salvation Farms in Vermont, and New Hampshire's own Veggie Volunteers.
Earlier this month, the directors of Salvation Farms and the Boston Area Gleaners came to Concord to speak with the NH Gleans coordinators. Theresa Snow of Salvation Farms said she's happy to share what she's learned from years of trial and error, but pointed out that, because this effort is statewide, New Hampshire has an advantage.
“In Vermont we have organizations that have a lot of autonomy, they haven't developed their practices together,” she says, “and so our organization is trying to do that, where I feel New Hampshire is fortunate to be starting out identifying potential regions and organizations to build that foundation going forward."
As the project has gone forward, it’s meant an adjustment for some farmers. After all, it means strangers coming on to a farmer's land.
But Gene Jonas, who owns Hungry Bear Farm, got to know and trust Hazel Gershfield from the farmer's market. “Couple weeks ago I was inundated with plum tomatoes that weren't selling at the market,” he recalls. “We started talking, I said something, probably off the cuff like 'Oh you can come out to the farm and pick them if you like,' because there's no sense picking something that's not selling, and I've got loads more to do, so she said 'Oh yeah, yeah we'll come out.' I showed her where to pick and they did the rest."
Jonas says having gleaners come to his farm and gather what he can't sell saves him time and labor. And he's happy the food he worked hard to grow doesn't go to waste: “Report is the people she gave the tomatoes to were very happy, too,” he says.
Some of those tomatoes ended up at the Peterborough Food Pantry, which feeds more than 300 households a month across 14 towns.
Christine Mann is president of the Peterborough Human Services Fund, and she says she's thrilled, especially in a time of uncertain state and federal budgets, to know Gershfield is committed to regularly finding excess produce and bringing it in.
“She brings us beautiful stuff, almost once a week – and you know this is high season for farming, so almost once a week she brings us crazy amounts of beautiful fruits and vegetables."
And Mann says having a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables around is a great way to introduce healthy eating to kids: “When the children come in, there will often be a whole bushel of tomatoes and zucchini, and the little kids come in and their eyes pop open and they go, 'Wow.' We like that."
Gershfield likes that reaction, too. “I know that with the good heart and the good feeling and the good reception from everybody I talked to, it's going to expand,” she says. “It's just starting in New Hampshire, and it will grow, there's no doubt in my mind."
She's gleaned over a thousand pounds of fresh, local produce, just since mid-July.
And the season isn't over yet.