Many Hands Make Light Work
by Ali Berlow
“Hip, hip hooray for peppers and eggplant… I love veggies!” This is not exactly the collective cheer you expect to hear from a gaggle of school kids. But there it is, rising loud and clear in the Edgartown School cafeteria. These K-5th grade students seem genuinely enthusiastic about sacks of Morning Glory Farm corn, fresh green and red peppers, and shapely black-purple eggplants that were dropped off at their lunchroom. So does Gina DeBettencourt, the school’s Kitchen Manager. Between teaching this after-school cooking class and preparing the upcoming lunch menus to include this October windfall—stuffed peppers, soups, and salad bar fixings—Gina explains her kitchen will be chopping all week to process the fresh produce. But, she adds, one of the grade school classes will shuck the bag of corn. “They love doing that.”
This ample delivery didn’t come by way of a semi-tractor trailer or a refrigerated truck from the mainland. The veggies did not sit on a loading dock or warehouse for days or weeks on end waiting to be distributed either. They were picked at the height of ripeness and dropped off at the school, all within hours. And what’s even better—they were donated. The only middlemen between Morning Glory Farm fields and the Edgartown School’s lunchroom were the volunteers in a new collaborative, Martha’s Vineyard Gleaners, originated by the Sowing Circle (a group of women-farmer-activists), and Island Grown Schools (a program of Island Grown Initiative, or IGI).
Gleaning is the act of harvesting crops that are either inaccessible or unmarketable to a farmer. The intention of gleaning tends toward the charitable. The food goes to people or communities in need for their larders. Historical references to gleaning exist in the Bible story of Ruth and the Book of Leviticus, where farmers are commanded to leave the corners and edges of their fields unharvested and available to the disadvantaged: “...You shall leave them to the poor, and to the stranger.” (Lev: 23: 22).
Today on the Island, the establishment of MV Gleaners provides elegant solutions to a multitude of converging issues that affect the strength and breadth of our local food system.
School lunch budgets, which are determined town-by-town, are a tight-rope walk between high expectations, the bottom line, and federal government mandates: Offer nutritionally balanced, tasty, hot lunch options for every student, for $2.25, and feed them all within the minimal amount of time allotted for students to eat. (Try doing that every day.)
Farms, just like other Island businesses, lose significant manpower in the shoulder season. This comes at a particularly bad time for farmers when they face the harvest season. Consequently some of the fall field crops, more often than not, get plowed under because they don’t get picked. Frost-sensitive vegetables, like the eggplants that ended up at Edgartown School and at other schools across the Island, are particularly vulnerable to early cold spells. In that case, gleaners need to be flexible, to be able to mobilize quickly to get out to pick even when it’s raining outside.
In order for a gleaning program to be successful year after year, it needs structure, organization and community participation. Only then will gleaning become part of the agricultural cycle.
Thanks to a generous donation to IGI from Betsy and Jesse Fink, there’s seed money setting this project in motion. Now if Island farmers want to offer up their fields for gleaning, they can contact Rebecca Gilbert of Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark and the Sowing Circle, and she will coordinate the community volunteers.
Conjunctively, Noli Taylor, the Island Grown Schools coordinator, is the point person for schools, student gleaners, and school cafeterias as distribution points and outlets for the gleaned produce.
In the case of the October eggplants, Olsen Houghton rallied twenty-plus students from his high school Leadership Class on a Wednesday afternoon to meet the Gleaners’ other volunteers at Morning Glory’s fields to harvest. Being prepared is crucial.
Because of the early funding by the Finks, the MV Gleaners have the means to put together a traveling gleaning kit that includes the tools and containers needed to glean (they even travel with first aid supplies) so all a farmer has to do is point to where the food lies in wait. Making gleaning easy on the grower is one of the keys to long-term success.
School cafeterias and hence, Island kids, benefit by getting fresh, locally grown food for their lunches. Teachers, students, and community volunteers benefit by getting out and working in the fresh air while doing community service. The MV Gleaners project is win-win for our community. There will always be a need to fill, whether it be school lunch, the Island Food Pantry, the jail, or programs like Meals on Wheels. Gleaning shifts a cycle from waste (albeit compostable) into a charitable, year-round agricultural cycle of long-term good and stability.
The Gleaners’ founders are dreaming big. They envision many ways the project can manifest itself. Rebecca Gilbert hopes to teach people how to preserve gleaned food for their pantries. Island chefs could use gleaned produce and turn it into soups or ingredients for the Island Food Pantry, or the senior centers, or elderly affordable housing.
Even in its infancy, there’s proof and potential in the Gleaners’ early accomplishments. Rebecca Miller of North Tabor Farm, IGI, and the Sowing Circle, is exuberant. She writes in an email about that day in October, the first run of MV Gleaners, “It was a fantastically rewarding experience that I can’t wait to repeat. The kids were so into it. The recipients were enthusiastic, and I am so grateful to be a farmer!”