Farms give surplus food to help poor

By:  John Flowers
GRETCHEN COTELL, LOCAL food access coordinator for Helping Overcome Poverty's Effects, shows off bins of freshly gleaned produce that are now available for HOPE clients. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — Farms throughout Addison County are being tapped for any extra produce that could be stored and used to feed the hungry this winter.

At issue is an up-and-coming gleaning program run under the auspices of the agency called Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, or HOPE.

With the help of several local volunteers, the HOPE-based initiative resulted in around 19,500 pounds of food being harvested from almost 20 Addison County farms last year. Gretchen Cotell, HOPE’s local food access coordinator, believes this year’s gleaning effort will far exceed last year’s harvest. And that’s good news for many Addison County families that are struggling to put good, nutritious food on their tables.

“It’s working very well this year,” Cotell said of the gleaning effort. “There’s going to be a substantial amount of produce.”

That produce will come in a lot of varieties and sizes. We’re talking potatoes, cabbage, peppers, corn, apples, pumpkins and other wholesome food. This will be added to thousands of pounds of already-gathered tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, greens, broccoli, beets, carrots and squash.

Participating farmers have come to recognize the truck that Cotell and her helpers pull up in on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays to receive any crops that won’t be headed to market. Some of those crops are surplus. Some of the produce might be too big, be too small or feature small imperfections that disqualifies it from making it to the store.

The gleaned food heads back to HOPE for processing. Much of it is placed in HOPE’s food shelf, where it is offered for free to families who need it. Consumers are allowed, each day, to fill a 16-by-12-by-7-inch bag with the produce they want.

“It comes in very handy,” a HOPE client said on Monday as she picked through the day’s produce offerings at the food shelf. “Times are hard and money is tight.”

The woman, who requested anonymity, said she used to donate to the food shelf herself until she fell on tough times. She said she uses the produce to supplement her daily diet.

“It’s such a relief to a lot of people,” she said of the food shelf. “A lot of people really depend on this.”

Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE, agreed.

“The food shelf is seeing a lot of traffic,” Montross said. “It’s difficult to keep a lot of food in stock for people.”

She pointed to a couple of recent challenges for the food shelf.

First, she said a lot non-perishable supermarket food is finding its way into bargain stores for resale. And she added the Middlebury Shaw’s Supermarket recently elected to remove its HOPE food bin in favor of asking people to donate funds and/or food directly at its store registers. The store now divides those proceeds between HOPE’s food shelf and another operated by Addison Community Action/Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, also based in Middlebury.

Thankfully, the fall is a period of time when area schools, businesses and civic groups conduct food drives that will temporarily restock the shelves at HOPE, Montross said. But the farm produce is becoming a more important factor in making sure supplies last through the winter. Some of the produce that isn’t immediately snapped up at the food shelf will be further processed and frozen for future distribution. And some of it will be taken to the Glass Onion Restaurant at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, where culinary students will transform it into delicious, nutritious soups. Additional produce will find its way into the holiday food baskets that HOPE distributes to eligible families for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Montross credited the Vermont Gleaning Collective and the Salvation Farms organization for helping HOPE refine its crop gathering efforts. She lauded the Elmer Farm in East Middlebury, Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham, Lalumiere Farm in Ferrisburgh, Bella Farm in Monkton and Singing Cedars Farmstead in Orwell as being “core” participants in the local gleaning effort.

“We’ve basically been thrilled to be able to send surplus produce to HOPE through pickups,” Golden Russet Farm co-owner Will Stevens said. “For Gretchen to pick it up is awesome for us.”

In a perfect world, Stevens said, everyone would have access to affordable, quality food. He hopes there might be some job training opportunities for people through the gleaning program.

Montross added she is pleased at how actively the produce is being used by HOPE clients.

“It’s very popular,” Montross said. “(Clients) are trading recipes.”

Cotell is anticipating two more large gleaning events this fall. She has an email list of around 200 people who have offered to help, from hauling to processing the produce. Cotell, in concert with farmers, is now starting to train volunteers to pick the right produce to be gleaned. That is a task that the farmers have heretofore done largely on their own.

“We will continue (to glean) as long as we have enough produce,” Cotell said.

Anyone interested in volunteering or learning more about the gleaning program can reach Cotell or Montross at 388-3608.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.