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Picked fruit goes to a number of North Coast food distribution agencies. Photo by Lucia Viti
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Senior Gleaners gather surplus food to feed the hungry

RANCHO SANTA FE — Are you an active senior willing to exchange time for productivity? Are you a vegetable or fruit farmer harvesting crops or a homeowner with a yard filled with fruit trees?

Do you love sharing a bright sunny day with friends while serving to sustain our ecosystem and feed the hungry?

If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, Senior Gleaners are ready and super excited for you to join their efforts in gleaning surplus produce to help feed those in need.

Gleaning, a Biblical tradition established by landowners who set aside portions of their harvested bounty to feed the poor, is sowing its seeds in San Diego to feed the hungry, reduce food excess, and protect the environment from harmful methane gas, a byproduct of food and organic waste.

Celebrating 25 years as a nonprofit organization, Senior Gleaners collect food that would otherwise be wasted.

Members glean surplus produce from farms, fields, groves and yards as well as damaged or outdated food and products donated by grocers, food services and restaurants throughout San Diego County. 

Volunteers say they enjoy the physical exercise of gleaning and the opportunity to meet others who are motivated to help people in need. Photo by Lucia Viti

“This is a program that helps the environment, assists homeowners, reduces waste and feeds hungry people all in one integrated process,” said Karen Clay, Senior Gleaners’ general manager.

“With all of the negativity in today’s world, gleaning is positive and productive,” added Monte Turner, Senior Gleaner board president. “Rather than compost edible food or fill landfills with foods that become harmful methane gas, it makes more sense to support the Senior Gleaners who get food to the people who need it.”  

According to Turner, the food advocacy group collected more than 280,000 pounds of produce and distributed nearly 252 tons of food in 2018.

And yet, San Diegans continue to waste 500,000 tons of food annually while 500, 000 people are considered food “insecure.”

“While not starving, many San Diegans — one out of five — don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” he said. “San Diego has an abundance of trees loaded with fruit that eventually falls to the ground and becomes unsightly, attracting insects and feeding rats. To date, we’ve collected less than 10% of what’s available, leaving huge untapped resources. We don’t have a hunger problem; we have a food distribution problem.”

“San Diego County has plenty of food,” Clay continued. “There’s a consortium of business between individual urban agriculture, sea-food pickups, and food recovery from residential and retail locations. The problem is distributing it to those in need.” 

And that’s where Senior Gleaners come in. More than 50 volunteers glean almost every Tuesday morning, year-round.

Grocery crews are scheduled four mornings a week for pickups from Windmill Farms, VONS, Ralphs, Keils, and even Outback Steakhouse.

Senior Gleaners supply small distribution groups — those not served by large food banks — inclusive of churches, senior-centers, low-income housing units and food pantries.

Turner noted that it’s now standard practice for nationwide grocery chain stores to connect with groups like “ours” to ensure that edible food is feeding the hungry, not landfills.

“Food organizations like ours are being tapped into after a recently enacted state law that requires cities and counties to reduce the amount of organic — soon to be toxic — material, to be dumped into landfills,” he said.

Turner spoke of the emotional satisfaction that he gets from gleaning.

“I love being outside with friends picking fruit appreciated by people who frequent food pantries,” he said. “People often receive canned goods and unsold grocery food items but rarely fresh fruit. And San Diego is fruit country.”

Turner noted that Rancho Santa Fe and Encinitas — established residential growth areas — are particularly abundant with oranges, tangerines, lemons and grapefruits.

Apples and pears are gleaned from North County in the fall. Occasionally avocados are harvested from the east, a fruit Clay described as a “real prize.”

Food is picked directly from the trees sans stems and leaves and never gleaned from the ground. Produce is enclosed during transportation to ensure that nothing detrimental is transferred from the air while driving. All gleaners are certified by the Department of Agriculture.  

Clay admits that there’s an enormous quantity of available food. However, the public must be educated to define and implement food recovery systems and the processes of redistribution, processing, landfill diversion and Green House Gas avoidance.

“While gleaning isn’t new, many don’t still know what it means,” she said. “Education in food recovery systems is in its infancy. While organizations are working to advertise, word-of-mouth is our best method for educating the public.”

Senior Gleaners need trucks, refrigerated vehicles or SUVs to transport at least 300 pounds of produce to Heaven’s Windows, a satellite facility of the San Diego Food Bank and Feeding America.

“We need hauling systems to get food from catering to the people who need it,” said Clay.  “Everything is measured by the standard sized — and sturdy — banana box. Most transports contain 10 boxes weighing 30 pounds, totaling 300 pounds of surplus.”

While there are no minimum participation requirements, all volunteers must be 55 or older, an age Turner describes as being a “certified grownup.”

Donors receive detailed receipts to claim tax deductions. The federal Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects donors from liability for “damages incurred as the result of illness,” as long as the donor has not “acted with negligence or intentional misconduct.”  

The Senior Gleaners of San Diego County is a certified nonprofit organization affiliated with the San Diego County Office of Aging and Independent Services/ Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, a nationwide program that encourages seniors to serve their community.

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