This October, you can round up your purchase at the register and give the extra change to Community Harvest of Central Vermont, an organization that, in 2017, gleaned almost 25,000 pounds of food from local farms and donated almost 38,000 pounds in all to area nonprofit organizations.
Community Harvest of Central Vermont (CHCV) works with thirty to forty different farms every season as well as homeowners who may have a surplus from their gardens, orchards, etc. They also work with two to three hundred volunteers throughout the season. Volunteers are heavily involved in the gleaning process and also help with administrative duties, picking up donated produce boxes, putting up posters and delivering thousands of pounds of harvested food to recipients sites once every week.
Currently, deliveries are mostly made on Tuesday mornings, while the other days of the week are filled with food harvesting and collection. The collection locations and frequency can vary widely from week to week and season to season. Executive Director Allison Levin says, “Sometimes, it’s going out harvesting, but many times, it’s just picking up from a farm. They realize they have some extra stuff, they won’t sell it, it won’t still be good by next week, so they say, ‘hey, come and pick it up.’ Some farms, like Bear Roots Farm, it’s our regular weekly thing. I go every Wednesday and they sort of clean out the cooler and figure out what they can’t use. I sort through it, box it up, get it ready. Some things I have to deliver right away, because they need to get used, so I try to make adjustments to the regular plan. Other things get saved unit the regular delivery day.”
Referencing a 2016 study by Salvation Farms, Levin notes that 14.3 million pounds of locally grown food goes uneaten in Vermont every year. “All the states’ gleaning programs are denting that number,” she says. “But, for example, over the whole Vermont Gleaning Collective, we get a couple hundred thousand pounds and the Food Bank probably does the same and one of the other programs does around that number, so that’s maybe six hundred thousand out of the 14 million. That translates, here in Washington County, to a million pounds in Washington County every season that we could be gleaning. We’re gleaning right now twenty-five to thirty-five thousand a season.”
One of the big logistical challenges is getting the food to the organizations who are recipient sites. Most of those groups approach Community Harvest, asking to be part of the program, according to Levin. She adds that one of their goals is to keep the produce as local as possible, so they occasionally work to recruit recipient organizations when it helps achieve that goal. “When we started serving the Kingsbury Market Garden in Warren, we reached out to the food shelf in Waitsfield and the senior meal program and said ‘we’d really like to start serving you. We’re going to be coming on a weekly basis to pick up at this farm, we’d love to drop off some of that food and food we get at other places at your site’.”
While they don’t necessarily have to do a lot of recruiting on that side of the program, they are “always” recruiting farms to get involved. Levin says it’s all about education and showing farmers how the Community Harvest program can serve them and be a win-win for them as well. “We try to make it easy for them,” she says. “When we go out to the fields and harvest, sometimes we are doing maintenance cleaning, where we’re taking the unmarketable leaves, maybe on the kale or something. Or it’s the summer squash, we’re doing a harvest for them because they know they can’t use it but they have to keep harvesting it. Otherwise, they won’t keep producing. There’s different circumstances where we can help them keep their operation working smoothly and at the same time, they can be donating something that they probably didn’t need in the first place.”
Part of the work for Levin involves building and perfecting a system she can present to any farm, to show them how easy and efficient the process can be. Once she has the information she needs about the farm’s operation and how gleaning there can be handled, all it takes is a phone call from the farm to launch Community Harvest and their army of volunteers into action.
“We have a system set up ahead of time and we build those relationships with the farms. Once we have those, maybe they only call us once or twice a season. That’s great, that’s fine. We’ve got twenty other farms who might be calling us once or twice a season,” she says. “When you add all those up, that’s two or three gleans a week, keeping us busy with different kinds of things. It’s not like we necessarily need to be gleaning your farm all the time. Sure, there are opportunities for that and that’s great, we love to have things planned ahead of time. On the other hand, each farm has different things that happen. Each season is different. You never know when there’s going to be a crop that you get really good production from, even twice as much as you need, and you just don’t have the market for it.”
One aspect of Hunger Mountain Co-op’s support of Community Harvest is sponsoring the organization’s gleaning efforts at the Montpelier Farmers Market. CHCV provides the market farms an opportunity to donate anything they don’t want to take back home with them at the end of the day. Levin points to the program as a great way to engage her volunteers in a regular activity that is far less variable and uncertain than gleaning. It’s also a great way, she says, for her organization to build relationships with the farmers who sell at the market. “We’re there every week, we are interacting with them. They are thinking about what they’re going to donate and they’re also starting to think, ‘what do I have at home?’ They might say, ‘I also have something at the farm, can you pick it up?’ That’s our sort of stepping stone into their operation. It’s sort of this small step, so working at the farmers market is our opportunity to build those relationships with farms.”
For Levin, everything she does boils down to building connections and community, including the farmers, the service organizations and the volunteers she works with. She believes that part of this effort includes connecting the charitable side of the food system with the rest of the system, so that it’s all integrated in a much more complete and cohesive way. “That’s definitely one of the things that really excites me about this kind of work, is helping to build those kinds of connections,” she adds. “What we do is coordination. That’s really what we do. Sure, we are out in the field harvesting, but it’s really connecting all those pieces and coordinating all the interactions between the farmers and the recipients and trying to customize our service to each of those three groups, the farms, the volunteers and the recipient sites, to make it as easy, as positive and as seamless as possible for each of them.”