A guide to living local in New Hampshire

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Gleaning Program

Combats Food Insecurity

By Tom Long / Fiddlehead Contributing Editor

On a sweltering afternoon when a trip to the beach would have been more welcomed than a few hours of field work, Kelsey MacDonald assembled 13 volunteers at Heron Pond Farm in South Hampton to collect squash left behind after a recent harvest.

Armed with sturdy trash bags and cardboard boxes, the volunteers picked so much squash MacDonald had to make three trips in her Subaru Forester hatchback to donate the produce to Gather Food Pantry in Portsmouth. In all the group gathered 2,200 pounds of summer squash and zucchini that was shared with several food pantries in the area.

It’s called gleaning, and the practice is as old as the Bible, which recommended the practice in the Old Testament. MacDonald has been at it for two years.

“It’s exciting to help provide meals for kids, seniors and other people who need help getting food, some who even have to choose between eating and buying medicine,” said MacDonald, 24, NOFA-NH’s coordinator for NH Gleans. NOFA-NH, is the state’s branch of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association.

Picking leftover crops was an important part of farm life for the needy until the end of World War II when private property laws and mechanized farming almost put an end to the practice. It has been on the rebound since 1996 when congress passed the Good Samaritan Act, which encourages the donation of excess food by protecting donors from liability for any food contribution made in good faith.

NH Gleans distributes leftover produce to food pantries, soup kitchens and schools throughout the state. It is funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and is a partnership of NOFA-NH, Seacoast Eat Local, The Community Kitchen in Keene and the Merrimack, Belknap and Hillsborough County Conservation districts. Gleaning coordinators from each organization oversee the operation in a select area.

Since 2017 the program has provided more than 165,000 pounds of fresh food to the needy.
The program runs all year and has harvested summer squash, zucchini, cucumbers, baby romaine lettuce, sprouting broccoli, garlic, kale, chard, parsley, radishes, potatoes, beets, bread, kohlrabi, spinach, carrots, rutabagas, winter squash, parsnips, turnips, sweet potatoes, apples, asparagus, celeriac, oranges, strawberries and tomatoes.

“Some of the produce is bruised or an unusual shape, but it’s still nutritious,” MacDonald said. “Seeing that we are helping our community make choices to use fresh and local produce is very rewarding,” said Seneca Adam Bernard, pantry market and mobile programs manager for Gather NH, a food pantry that accepts gleaned produce from NOFA-NH’s gleaning coordinator. “In addition to the gleans saving Gather NH hundreds of dollars, being able to provide fresh, locally grown items has been significant to us and our mission and our shoppers.”

“We don’t just accept produce from big commercial farms, we even accept produce from people with a backyard garden if they have too much of one thing or another,” MacDonald said. “I’m always trying to build up the network. I approach vendors at farmers’ markets and introduce myself. I’ve built up a network of participating farms. There are advantages to them as well; they get a tax deduction at the end of the year and peace of mind in knowing that their produce fed somebody, it didn’t just lie on the ground.”

MacDonald frequently gleans at Tuckaway Farm, a family-owned fruit and vegetable spread “tucked away” at a bend in the Oyster River in Lee.

“Working with NH Gleans is valuable in so many ways for us,” said Sarah Cox, market gardens manager at the farm. “Knowing how many families and individuals in New Hampshire experience food insecurity and do not have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables makes it especially hard to see food waste in the field and/or post-harvest.

“Food waste can inevitably happen at the busiest times of year, when a cooler full of perishable food goes down, when weeds overtake a bed or just with the positive circumstances of a bumper crop. NH Gleans makes it much easier to get excess or nonmarketable food directly to individuals and families that might otherwise not have access.”

The program runs all year. Helpers are needed and always welcome.

“I’ve put up fliers at local libraries and coffee shops to find volunteers,” said MacDonald.

Prospective volunteers may get more information and sign up at NHGleans.org. The organization also has a Facebook page.

“I’ll always remember the time I was delivering lettuce to a pantry and one of the clients came over, said ‘thank you’ and gave me a great, big hug,” said MacDonald. “I loved it. It’s all about helping out and making a difference in people’s lives.”