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Food insecurity in the United States skyrocketed when the COVID-19 pandemic began, leaving emergency food distributors scrambling to provide enough to those in need. To help fill the gap, organizations around the country have doubled down on the age-old practice of gleaning: getting excess crops from farms to those in need. Special Correspondent Michael Hill reports.
Food insecurity in the United States skyrocketed when the COVID-19 pandemic began almost six months ago. It's left emergency food distributors stretched to provide enough to those in need.
To help fill this gap, organizations around the country have doubled down on an age-old practice of getting excess crops from farms to families in need.
On the third Friday of every month, St. Mary's Outreach in Newburgh, New York — opens its doors.
After a quick COVID symptom screen and mask check, people wind their way around the outside of this gym, following tape on the floor to try and remain 6 feet apart. There's canned food and staples like rice. But the highlight for many is the more than a dozen different types of fresh produce.
I'm so amazed that they have an abundance of vegetables like this
Richard Wilson and Tammy Barber: Look at the size of this thing!
It's a great privilege to come here and get this here. And I'm not ashamed of it because I'm going to go home and I'm going to eat very good.
Marietta Allen is the director of St. Mary's Outreach.
We have a community, it's very, very poor. And I try to include fresh stuff every, every month. Makes a big, big difference. And the families are very appreciative too.
Even before the pandemic, this part of Newburgh – a city 70 miles north of New York City was categorized as a food desert according to federal data, meaning there's reduced access to fresh, affordable, fruits and vegetables.
But at this food bank, much of this produce could just as easily be found at upscale farmers markets in wealthy enclaves of places like New York City. In fact, less than 48 hours earlier, much of it was.
Getting this produce from here to emergency food distributors is the job of a complex regional distribution network that gleans – or takes excess food from farmers – and gets it to the needy.
Gleaning is a custom that dates back thousands of years, even described in the Book of Ruth in the Bible. But it's become more challenging during the pandemic, just as demand for emergency food is surging.
So what we've got here is Pink Berekly Tie-Dye…
Kevin Smith is the owner of Sycamore Farms, and he brings produce to this New York City greenmarket in Union Square twice a week. It never closed during the COVID-19 shutdown.
This farmers market, especially this year, has been a great sense of community for myself and the people that shop here, and for products. It's been really a saving grace for me and my family.
At the end of the day, anything that's not sold is carefully reloaded on his refrigerated truck and brought back to his 237 acre farm about 70 miles northwest of New York City.
Early the next morning, a team from Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County is sifting through what's left.
I'll take some stuff and go into Newburgh
Stiles Najac runs Cornell Extension's gleaning program.
We move close to four hundred thousand pounds of food fresh from the farm directly to soup kitchens and food pantries so that they don't have to store it, every year. We move food as quickly as we need to to make sure that it is eaten while fresh.
Gleaning Sycamore's market truck means going through produce carefully to make sure only fruits and vegetables that are still good are taken. In the middle of tomato season, it's a time consuming process.
When gleaning, you wind up getting a wide variety of quality. This is amazing. This this is what you want. You want food that has been grown and cared for and just didn't find a market, a home from the market. We'll give it a good home.
All told, nearly 6 thousand pounds of produce, including tomatoes, corn, peppers, beans, and eggplants are taken from Sycamore's truck and loaded onto Cornell Extensions's refrigerated truck, ready to be taken to distribution points across the region.
This program, which is funded by state and local grants, as well as donations, is one of nearly 200 gleaning programs in North America, according to the Association of Gleaning Organizations.
The growth of gleaning programs, like Cornell Extension's, has partly been driven by adding financial incentives for farmers. Since 2018, New York State farms can receive a tax credit of up to $5 thousand. That's in addition to getting a break on their federal taxes for donating crops to non-profits.
This could be the difference between whether or not, you know, they have a big bill to pay or a small bill to pay at the end of the year.
In addition to the tax incentives, Kevin Smith says having a place to donate, actually helps him maintain the value of his produce at the greenmarket.
We used to do it about 3:00, 4:00 in the afternoon. We started having discount sales. We created a culture of late in the day, shoppers who were looking only for deals. So when I started working with Stiles, I no longer felt the pressure of taking home this extra produce as a burden. I would much rather donate than discount my rates here where I have an established market.
For the last decade, Sycamore has donated, on average, about 65 thousand pounds of produce each year. And it's not alone – as the pandemic increases food insecurity, Cornell Extension's gleaning program has been busier than ever.
Everybody is growing fresh produce for us to donate. It's been I would say we've easily doubled the amount of food that we're moving in a weekly basis.
But even as donations increase, the pandemic adds new challenges to how Stiles and her team operate.
In other years, excess crops like these tomatoes, which were passed over by pickers for not being perfect, might have been collected by volunteers for donation. But not this year.
I would like to get volunteers into the field. However, we do have to take into consideration social distancing, masks, COVID has kind of slowed us down in that matter.
Back in Newburgh – about 20 miles from Sycamore Farm – gleaned tomatoes, corn, beans, eggplant, nectarines, and peaches are delivered to St. Mary's Outreach. The next morning, volunteers put the produce into grab-able plastic bags, before they are distributed to those in need.
This food pantry has been here for almost a decade, but this will be its last time operating in this 3,500 square foot gym. Because of COVID-19, a Head Start program for kids needs the space for social distancing.
With increased demand for emergency food, Marietta Allen says she's looking for a new space.
I'm hoping we can find something, but wherever we are, we give away as much as we can.
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Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
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