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Grassroots Gleaning: Getting the Harvest to the Hungry

| October 10, 2013
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Part 4 of 4 in “Hunger in the Valley of Plenty,” a series by KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

By Sasha Khokha

This is a story about some squash and green beans. But it’s a tale that also starts with a murder.

This past Memorial Day, a man in the Tulare County farmworker town of Orosi apparently shot his two daughters in a grisly murder-suicide.

While the cameraman from the Fresno CBS station was out looking for local reactions, he noticed a farmer surveying his fields across from the elementary school.

Cameras rolling, the grower said he knew nothing about the murder, but he was very worried about having to leave perfectly good squash to rot in the field.

Temperatures had spiked unexpectedly in May, and Abe-el Produce farms couldn’t round up enough workers to pick the squash before it grew too big to be sold. The major supermarket chains across the country Abe-el sells to demand perfect produce to meet consumer’s expectations.

A few months later, when I visit, Abe-el’s squash fields are once again dense with prickly leaves. Farm manager Peter Mesias picks a zucchini that looks delicious. But he says it wouldn’t make the grade.

“Right off the bat, you can see there’s a nick, there’s a little bit of a crook. That couldn’t be packed in a box,” he explained.

And he’s not just worried about dings and scratches. Size matters, too.

“One day it’s perfect,” Mesias said, “but if you wait too long, it’ll grow too big and it’s not a desirable piece of fruit.”

Sometimes it’s just cheaper to plow under excess crops than to pay to have them picked. One recent survey from the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that as much as 30 percent of some crops go to waste in fields in the Central Valley and Central Coast.

Connecting food and people

Mesias hoped the news coverage would encourage local folks to come take some of the imperfect produce, which he offered for free to anyone who wanted it. But he didn’t get many takers – not even from the local food bank, which is desperate for donations.

Major  grocery chains don't want peppers that show imperfections. (Scott Anger/KQED)

Major grocery chains don’t want peppers that show imperfections. (Scott Anger/KQED)

“It’s not uncommon for us to get calls from farmers who for some reason are just not going to pick the fruit that they have in the fields,” said Sandy Beals, who directs FoodLink for Tulare County. “And if we can pick it, we can have it. I mean, how tempting is that?”

FoodLink feeds a quarter of the population in Tulare County. But liability issues make it hard to send its staff to pick excess crops. “It seems so simple,” Beals said. “But the liability issues and the risk are sky high. Somebody falls off a ladder and gets hurt. One incident like that could very easily put us belly up.”

But as an individual, someone like Sarah Ramirez can sign a liability waiver saying she won’t sue if she gets hurt. Ramirez has made it her mission to rescue produce from commercial fields and people’s backyards. She loaded up her husband’s pickup with squash and green beans from Abe-el and donated them to the food bank.

“We found that there was a lot of tree fruit going unharvested, and yet at the same time, we have hunger and food insecurity,” Ramirez said. “We should be able to put a need with the surplus. Let’s put the pieces together.”

Ramirez stands on a tall ladder, using a long-handled fruit picker to pluck pears from a backyard tree. She and her husband David Terrel, a football coach at the local high school, have brought a crew of brawny teens to pick – or glean – the fruit.

Sarah Ramirez gleans apples from a front yard in Visalia. (Scott Anger/KQED)

Sarah Ramirez gleans apples from a front yard in Visalia. (Scott Anger/KQED)

It’s part of a grassroots effort called “Be Healthy Tulare,” a shoestring operation she and Terrel fund themselves, and run out of their home in a trailer park in rural Pixley, where they both grew up. The daughter of farmworkers, Ramirez went on to get a Ph.D. at Stanford and become Tulare County’s epidemiologist.

“One of the biggest problems given that I was looking at health data was really these chronic diseases – obesity, diabetes – juxtaposed with food insecurity,”  Ramirez recalled. “But we kept sitting around these tables and repeating the same thing over and over again. And there was little action; we were looking for someone else to do that work.”

“And Sarah’s frustration just continued to build up and build up,” chimed in Terrel, “until she finally said, ‘You know what? I have to do something. Let’s pick fruit.’”

Now, she’s given up the prestige of a high-powered career to return to her roots, to the kind of work that her parents, who labored in the fields, tried to make sure she’d never have to do.

Gleaning’s broader impacts

“One of our team members says I should be wearing a T- shirt that says ‘I have a Ph.D. and I pick fruit,’” she laughed.

The teen volunteers say the gleaning project has helped them realize that one in three young people in their county live in a household where people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Many of them are farmworkers – who climb into trees like these all day long to harvest fruit.

“I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know if I could do this every single day,” said 18- year-old volunteer Joseph Perryman, perched up in a pear tree. “It’s hot, it’s sweaty and the trees can have stickers.”

Homeowner Jean Ellsworth says she’s grateful to see young and energetic volunteers pick the fruit and give it to people who need it. She hasn’t been able to harvest her trees since her husband died.

“When the fruit falls, in addition to wasting the fruit, it attracts varmints, mice,” she said, frowning. “I had a possum in here one night. The less fruit on the ground, the better.”

David Terrel, at left, works with his wife, Sarah Ramirez, center, and a volunteer to glean pears from a backyard tree in Visalia.  (Scott Anger/KQED)

David Terrel, at left, works with his wife, Sarah Ramirez, center, and a volunteer to glean pears from a backyard tree in Visalia. (Scott Anger/KQED)

So far this year, Ramirez and her tiny band of volunteers have gleaned 19 thousand pounds of produce from farms and backyards. She knows that she’s only making a small dent in the problem: By some estimates, Americans throw away about 40 percent of our food, from the cabbage that’s wilting in our refrigerators, to the fruit that’s falling off the orange tree in our neighbor’s backyard.

“If I think about the overwhelming nature of the problem, it’s so much easier not to do anything,” Ramirez said. “And there are a lot of people who say the problem is so big, nothing we can ever do will fix it. Well, if we all took that position nothing would ever get done.”

Teaching healthy recipes

Ramirez is doing more than just picking fruit. Weekends, she ties a colorful bandanna on her head and gets out her sharp knives to hold “food labs,” nutrition classes to teach people how to incorporate more produce into their diets. They whip up delicacies like peach-cucumber gazpacho in the community kitchen of the Pixley trailer park.

Some of the ingredients are grown from the community garden they’ve planted down the road. That’s where Maria Arevalo is sautéing some eggplant she’s just harvested. She worked in the fields for some 40 years before recently retiring.

“Vegetables used to look kind of tempting to me,” she explained in Spanish, standing over an outdoor propane stove. “But I didn’t know how to cook them. My mother never cooked them. People here can’t afford them. They’re a luxury.”

But with the nutrition classes, that’s changed.

“My family all loves it because I never used to cook with vegetables. Just meat, rice and beans. That was my favorite dish,” she said, sweeping her hands into the air. “But now, we’re eating fruit and vegetables we pick from this organic garden.”

It’s paying off. Arevalo says her blood pressure is now under control. And her community’s getting healthier too.

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