Gleaned produce feeding the needy

9/21/2008
BY KATE GIAMMARISE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sara Paulus, 16, an exchange student from Germany, left, and Rebekah Smith, 12, with whom she is staying in Sandusky County's Helena, glean tomatoes from a Pemberville area field.
Sara Paulus, 16, an exchange student from Germany, left, and Rebekah Smith, 12, with whom she is staying in Sandusky County's Helena, glean tomatoes from a Pemberville area field.

PEMBERVILLE, Ohio A tomato that hasn't quite ripened. A potato with a blemish. An ear of corn left behind by the harvesters.

Such perfectly edible produce easily could go to waste but not if George 'Tater' Jensen has anything to say about it.

Mr. Jensen, 70, of Luckey, a retired plumber, has spent the last 10 years building a network in northwest Ohio from the ground up, of volunteers who glean fruits and vegetables left behind in farm fields and orchards, growers who allow the volunteers to glean, and soup kitchens, food pantries, and food banks that use the produce to feed the hungry.

Gleaning is the collection of crops from farmers' fields that already have been mechanically harvested, or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mr. Jensen works as a hunger relief advocate for the Society of St. Andrew, a group that gleans about 20 million to 30 million pounds every year, said Carol Breitinger, communications director for the society.

Elijah White, 11, right, and his cousin Victoria Goings, 9, help pick tomatoes for soup kitchens and food pantries. They were with a Collingwood United Methodist Church group.
Elijah White, 11, right, and his cousin Victoria Goings, 9, help pick tomatoes for soup kitchens and food pantries. They were with a Collingwood United Methodist Church group.

Gleaned produce includes items that weren't ripe enough to be harvested with the rest of the crop, were missed by a mechanical picker, or don't look nice enough to be sold in a grocery store, Ms. Breitinger said.

Mr. Jensen estimates since he started keeping track in 2000, he and volunteers he organized have harvested about 1.7 million pounds of food.

Yesterday, he and about 40 others gleaned tomatoes from a field on Sugar Ridge Road near Pemberville.

'It's a simple, effective way to get fresh food to families in need,' said one volunteer, Sarah Twitchell of Toledo, who came with several others from the Monroe Street United Methodist Church.

The volunteers were in Duane Martin's field. Mr. Martin said his family grows about 600 acres of crops such as tomatoes, corn, and soybeans. But their tomatoes are picked by a machine that misses a few, and kicks out green ones, which eventually will ripen. These leftovers are the tomatoes the gleaners collect.

Mr. Martin said he allowed Mr. Jensen's group to glean his fields because 'I know it's going to a good cause.'

The practice of gleaning has its origins in Biblical times, Ms. Breitinger said.

'In Leviticus, the people are given instructions not to harvest their entire field, to leave the corners for the poor and strangers to be able to glean what is left behind,' she said.

'It is a calling for George,' she added. 'He is so dedicated. His ministry is to feed the hungry.'

Mr. Jensen said he believes he is doing what his faith requires.

'There's over 2,000 verses in the Bible about taking care of the needy and the hungry,' he said. 'If we really believe it, then why aren't we doing it? Anybody can talk about anything. Get out and do it.'

Gleaning can be very challenging for a nonprofit or group of volunteers to undertake, said the Rev. Steve Anthony, executive director of Toledo Area Ministries.

'Gleaning is a very difficult thing,' he said.

'You have to have volunteers ready at a moment's notice. You don't get a lot of forewarning. The second obstacle is equipment' like a truck, to transport the collected produce.

A large pool of volunteers is needed because gleaners typically only have a small window of time before the produce goes bad or before farmers need to

work their fields again.

The Lucas County Hunger Task Force has tried to expand its gleaning efforts in spite of these challenges, the Rev. Anthony said, and it is hoping to do more gleaning next year.

'It's being done on a very, very small scale at this time. The produce that is now going to fertilize the field is what we would like to get to.'

He added, '[There is] a great need If we had the manpower, the capacity, and trucks, we could be getting a lot of this food for our community.'

Mr. Jensen and his gleaners have brought 91,230 pounds of food, including corn, cabbage, potatoes, melons, and green peppers, this year to the Toledo Seagate

Food Bank, said Mindy Rapp, the food bank's program manager.

His work has earned him the endearing nickname, 'Potato George.'

'When he first started, that's what he had potatoes, so he got the nickname,' Ms. Rapp said. 'He's quite a character.'??

Having fresh, straight-from-the-fields produce is a wonderful addition to the food bank's offerings, she added.

'And he delivers it here. Especially these days, with the cost of fuel, that's wonderful.'

She added, 'We're trying to expand the gleaning and get a lot of the farmers to join in. Hopefully, it will keep growing, because the food it provides is invaluable.'

Contact Kate Giammarise at: kgiammarise@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.