By Debbie Adams
Volunteers from Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church in Vinton spent the afternoon on November 14, gleaning turnips at Windy Hills Farm in Riner.
On the sunny, but chilly day, 28 members of the Thrasher youth group, several families, and the Ten Brave Christians group filled about 140 bags of turnips, weighing 15-20 pounds each– a little over a ton of turnips in total.
About two-thirds of those turnips ended up in Lynchburg at Gateway Ministries, the Salvation Army, Come to the Altar Ministry, and the New Prospect Food Pantry by the end of the day. (The turnips are generally distributed in 10-pound bags and some agencies provide recipes for families for the less familiar produce– like turnips.)
The gleaning project was organized through the Society of St. Andrew (SOSA), facilitated by Sarah Ramey, the Virginia Gleaning Coordinator for the Society, and arranged by Bonnie Jones, the youth director at Thrasher.
According to the Windy Hills Farm website, each year the 450-acre farm works with the Society of St. Andrew to provide fresh vegetables to local food banks, donating 80,000-100,000 pounds of turnips and other fresh produce.
“Everything we raise is for food banks and donations,” said owners Tabitha and Darin Greear. “We can do it, and like it. It’s our hobby. We feel blessed by all we have been given, and feel it is our duty to help other people. Our farm is open each fall for gleaning and giving back to the community.”
The Greears purchased the farm in 2007 and planted a field of turnips and alfalfa. The turnips outgrew the alfalfa– producing thousands and thousands of pounds of turnips. They didn’t want them to go to waste and got in touch with Ramey. The Greears have donated turnips every year since, and now plant six to seven acres for the sole purpose of growing food for SOSA. November is turnip harvesting time.
Windy Hills sees this as “an excellent opportunity for student groups to experience life on a working farm while giving back to those in need.”
SOSA estimates that almost 115 billion pounds of food have been wasted in the United States already in 2021– in fields, during transportation, and in supermarkets, restaurants, and homes.
The food wasted in the fields may be left because it is missed by mechanical harvesting or because the crops weren’t attractive enough for supermarket shelves– edible and nutritious, but not commercially marketable.
In 2021, through October, SOSA has so far gleaned, gathered, and distributed about 43.6 million pounds of fresh produce in 5,694 events with 15,693 volunteers. Food donated by 789 farmers has been distributed to hungry people through 1,745 feeding agencies– for a total of 130,943,007 servings of fresh food shared.
SOSA has been working with farmers, volunteers, organizations, and faith groups since 1979.
That’s when two United Methodist ministers, Ken Horne and Ray Buchanan, right out of seminary, had a vision of a world without hunger. They were living in rural Virginia working on hunger issues for the Methodist church, trying to practice living simply and being good stewards of the land. Using a converted sheep shed in Big Island as an office, they conducted workshops for church groups on responsible living in a world where many people go hungry.
In 1983, at a church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Horne and Buchanan spoke to a church group about transforming their primarily educational organization into one committed to feeding hungry people. The men discussed the possibility of collecting food that would be thrown away because it didn’t fit market standards and using it to feed people.
Potato farmers from that church said they would be willing to talk to other potato farmers on the shore to help Horne and Buchanan achieve their goals. One farmer gave them a pickup-truck load of potatoes from his field, which quickly led to 13 tractor-trailer loads of potatoes donated by other farmers. As a result, the Society of St. Andrew’s Potato Project was born, putting people into fields to gather fruits and vegetables that remain after harvest.
Beginning in 1992, the Society of St. Andrew expanded into other states in the form of regional offices and gleaning ministries. Although SOSA was begun by Methodist ministers, it is now an interdenominational non-profit organization which has spread across the nation.
Gleaners gather a variety of produce depending upon their location, from citrus fruits in Florida, to watermelons in Kansas, to potatoes, apples, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, blueberries, cabbage, onions, squash, corn, turnips, and cucumbers throughout the country.
The SOSA mission is biblically based, taken from Deuteronomy 24: 19 (NIV) which says, “When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”
Their name is taken from Andrew, the disciple of Jesus, who introduced the little boy with five loaves and two fishes to Jesus in the Bible story of the feeding of the 5,000.
Since SOSA was established in 1983, volunteers have salvaged and distributed hundreds of millions of pounds of produce across America to food banks, soup kitchens, group homes, reservations, food pantries, low income and elderly housing complexes, local churches, homeless shelters, rehab facilities, and other hunger agencies for distribution to those experiencing food insecurity.
“In Southwest Virginia, gleaning generally begins in July with corn and continues into December with turnips, root vegetables, and winter squash,” said Ramey. “In the Tidewater area, gleaning is possible 10 to 11 months of the year.”
Because the produce is donated, the Society of St. Andrew pays only for the transportation and packaging of the food.
Ramey began gleaning in 1994 when she lived in Winchester. Now she coordinates gleaning for SOSA throughout the state. She is always on the lookout for volunteers to glean and for new farmers and orchards to work with. SOSA is flexible and willing to work with farmers who might have an overabundance of produce on a one-time basis or on a regular schedule. There are advantages for the farmers since growers can receive a state and federal tax deduction for gleaned and donated crops.
Gleaners can be of any age but should be able to bend over to pick up fruit and lift several pounds of produce. Anyone allergic to bees should beware.
Ramey says gleaning was somewhat limited during the worst of the pandemic, due to fewer volunteers, although the work is outside.
She says the Thrasher group had a particularly good day on November 14. She remembers in particular a family with two young sons who were very hard workers. One of the boys kept running up with turnips, calling out, “This is a record-breaker.”
Check the Society of St. Andrew website at https://endhunger.org/ for more information or call 1-800-333-4597.