October 29, 2012
by Tom Slayton
Katie Rumley is the field representative for the Vermont Foodbank. It’s an apt job title: She does, in fact, spend a lot of her time in fields.
And, like most occupations related to farming, it doesn’t matter what the weather is like. When harvest time comes, you’re going to be in some field, somewhere. One recent late-fall day, the field in question was atop a windy hill on a back road in Craftsbury. The wind was harsh and chilly, and the dark, overcast skies were spitting rain.
No matter. Rumley and a group of youthful volunteers were there, ready to glean spinach for the Vermont Foodbank.
That field of spinach had been grown by a crew from Pete’s Greens, and Pete Johnson, owner and manager of the company, had donated the spinach to the food bank because he felt it wasn’t good enough to market.
But it looked fine, healthy and green, and it was Katie’s job to get it harvested and distributed to local food shelves and other agencies that might need it.
The Vermont Foodbank’s gleaning program is no small operation. So far this year, it has gathered more than 230,000 pounds of produce, and there will be more coming in, even as winter arrives. The program has gathered as much as 400,000 pounds of produce in a single year.
Rumley’s job is to make it all happen: coordinate gleaning dates with cooperating farmers, collect the food – either by herself or with the help of volunteers, and then distribute it to agencies that need it, like food shelves and meal sites.
Rumley is small and compact, with sandy hair, blue eyes, and a friendly manner. She also has to be strong, because she often must load her truck with a half-ton of squash or root vegetables. By herself.
On this harvest day, however, she had help. A half-dozen teenage volunteers were joining her from Episcopal churches around central Vermont. They call themselves the Episcopal Action Team, and that gives them the acronym EAT – which is a major clue as to the focus of their good works.
Their chaperone, the Rev. Dr. Earl Kooperkamp, pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Barre, noted that just a week ago, the group had helped pick apples at an orchard in Williston.
“We do what we can to help out the food bank,” Rev. Kooperkamp said, adding that the young people are “very inspiring to me.”
“They’re an amazing group, taking their faith seriously, at a very young age and in a very good way.”
Rev. Kooperkamp told the volunteers as they got to work that gleaning is mentioned in several books of the Old Testament, including Ruth and Leviticus. It was a required charity, under ancient Hebrew law. “So you are doing something that people have done for thousands of years, as a way of helping the poor,” he said.
Rumley pulled a stack of folded cartons and large plastic bags out of her truck and then took a short knife and showed the young volunteers how to cut the good spinach, how to avoid any yellow or withered leaves, and how to bag and box it.
At one point, Pete Johnson stopped by and chatted with Rumley. It was a timely visit, since it was at Pete’s Greens about five years ago that the gleaning program got started. A former food bank employee, Theresa Snow, had noticed that a lot of produce that wasn’t harvested got composted or plowed under at the end of the growing season. She suggested to Johnson that if he would donate the food, it could be harvested and distributed to Vermonters who need it.
He quickly agreed and the gleaning program was begun. Snow has since started an independent organization, Salvation Farms, that manages surplus agricultural products around Vermont.
In the last 12 months, Pete’s Greens has donated more than 37,000 pounds of produce to the Vermont Foodbank via the gleaning program. His operation is one of 120 farms that have donated to the program, and the EAT volunteers are among some 223 volunteers who have helped out.
There is a real need for the food that the gleaning program salvages. Federal surplus food donations have dwindled sharply this year. The two million pounds of food that the Vermont Foodbank used to receive has been cut by 50 percent.
“So that’s a million pounds of food that we won’t be distributing,” said Michelle Wallace, program manager for the food bank.
Wallace noted that hunger in Vermont is real, and it’s no longer just feeding the elderly or young children in needy families.“Now we’re seeing working families that aren’t earning enough to put food on the table,” she said.
Hunger can also mean more than a simple lack of food. “Hunger isn’t just about a lack of calories,” Wallace said. “It’s also about a lack of good nutrition.”
The gleaning program is helping fill both gaps: the loss of federal surplus commodities, and the need for nutritious, healthy food. Thus, it has become doubly important.
With the growing season winding down, Rumley is planning to leave the food bank job soon, since it is a part-time position and she needs full-time work. But she has a long-term interest in getting food to people who need it. While a student at Sterling College in Craftsbury, her senior project was a self-designed course in Sustainable Food Justice. That made the Vermont Foodbank job a natural for her.
“Everybody should have good food available to them,” she said last week, as the young helpers worked the field and the boxes of spinach filled. “We can grow food in ways that are sustainable – and get it to the people who need it.”