PUTNEY—Rows of green and red lettuce stretch across the fields of Harlow’s River View Farm. As the warm June sun warms the morning air, volunteers gather around Zach Hebert as he demonstrates how to harvest the large heads of lettuce.
Hebert and his volunteers are kicking off a new season of the Vermont Foodbank’s southern Vermont gleaning program, which partners with local farms to harvest excess produce or fruit.
Volunteers pick — or glean — the surplus food. The gleaned food is then distributed to the food pantries and other programs that partner with the Foodbank.
The participating farms donate the produce to the Foodbank. At the end of the season, the farmers receive a tax credit based on the poundage and crop.
“To me, there’s something so powerful about going out and going through something that is otherwise discarded — or in many ways is designated as waste, or as trash, or excess — and being able to harvest that and bring it back into the community, ” Hebert says.
Hebert, who joined the Vermont Foodbank last summer, now serves as the gleaning and community outreach coordinator for the nonprofit’s southern region.
“I just want to feed people, and I prefer to do it for free whenever possible,” Hebert says.
In an average year, the gleaning program, which started in Brattleboro in 2009, will harvest between 35,000 to 40,000 pounds of food during the growing season, which runs from May to December.
Although COVID-19 safety protocols have meant the Foodbank has limited the number of volunteers in the field, the virus has also turned a spotlight onto the issue of hunger in Vermont.
The organization has seen drastic increases in the number of people reaching out for help, up to 800 percent, at partner sites and distributions — statistics that the organization has shared on its website.
The most recent data from the national nonprofit Feeding America, released in mid-May, estimates the number of food-insecure people in Vermont has increased by 46 percent and that food insecurity for children in the state has increased by 60 percent.
Connecting to the soil
On this day, June 16, five volunteers have joined Hebert to gather red lettuce from one of Paul Harlow’s fields at the River View Farm tucked down behind Landmark College at the end of a dirt road.
Harlow has partnered with the Foodbank’s gleaning program for almost a decade, Hebert says, providing as much as 80 to 85 percent of the food that volunteers glean each season.
Gleaning is his passion.
It goes back to his days at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he studied sociology, planning to go into public health.
An internship with a nonprofit dedicated to gleaning during the summer of his junior year changed that plan.
“I think the gleaning program in Maine really opened my eyes to the fact that there is so much abundance in the communities that we are in, [not only] in terms of food but also in terms of good will and community spirit,” he says.
Hebert realized that the gleaning program combined all the things he cared about: community development, relationship building, and systems building.
“It really changed my life,” he says. “It helped me realize that I am interested in public health, but that I’m really interested in it from a food-systems perspective.”
Before they set foot on the field to glean, volunteers — “I set the limit at six so we don’t have an army of people crawling all over each other,” says Hebert — followed a checklist to ensure they follow COVID-19 safety protocols.
“We’re doing the best we can from the back of a truck in the middle of the field,” Hebert explains, pointing to a hand-washing station, a box of COVID-19 paperwork, gloves, and extra masks on the tailgate.
Volunteers reclaim the produce, filling each box with approximately eight heads of lettuce. They work until 10:30 a.m. or until the Foodbank’s truck is full, whichever comes first.
River View Farm is approximately 18 minutes drive from the Vermont Foodbank’s Brattleboro depot, in a section of the BDCC Business Park, better known as the former Book Press building at Browne Court, off Putney Road.
Rachael Cohen is the first to carry a full box to the truck.
“I fit 12, is that bad?” Cohen asks.
No, answers Hebert.
Cohen — “my consistent superstar volunteer,” Hebert says — has been gleaning with the Foodbank for four summers. She says she began gleaning after she learned it counted towards her member volunteer credits at the Brattleboro Food Co-op.
“People are hungry in the best of times,” she says. “There’s no reason this food should go to waste.”
Cohen says that gleaning for her has the added benefit of giving her time to dig in the dirt. She previously worked for a farm in the upper Connecticut Valley and has missed her time in the fields since moving to Windham County.
“I think that gleaning is one of these win-win kind of things,” says Cohen, who believes the program “fixes more than one thing at a time” because it provides food for those who need it, reduces waste, and allows volunteers time in nature.
Carla Fogg places a large head of lettuce into a box. She, too, is no stranger to the gleaning program and calls the work “very satisfying.” She feels glad that her efforts mean that less food is going to waste.
Marcy Andrew is new to the gleaning program, but not to farming. She has recently moved to Vermont with her family from New Mexico, where her family operated a small CSA (community supported agriculture) operation.
“It was humbling how much work it was,” she says.
Food insecurity has not loomed over her family, but she says that the stories of her neighbors dealing with hunger have affected her in other ways.
“I was searching for ways to feed that impulse to want to help,” Andrew says. “Vermont feels isolated from the world and the big world changes.”
“It’s just such a beautiful experience,” another volunteer, Laura Reed, says. “It really enriches my soul.”
A self-described “believer in vegetables,” Reed says the gleaning program helps get fresh produce to people who can’t always acquire it.
“Vegetables for everyone!” she says brightly.
If helping feed their neighbors isn’t reason enough, Reed says that people should volunteer to glean because they can see some of the most beautiful places in Vermont.
“It’s free agritourism,” she says.
Reed has gleaned a dozen times with the Foodbank. Usually she brings her grandson, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteering has been restricted to adults 18 and older.
Reed’s husband, John, has joined her for the first time to glean. In the past, he has stayed home to care for their young granddaughter.
As he drops off a full box and returns to the field, she asks him, “Are you having a good time?”
“Yep,” he says. “It’s a wonderful experience.”
Twelve pounds for 10 meals
According to Feeding America, 12 pounds of ingredients roughly translates to 10 meals.
By that yardstick, based on the average amount of food gleaned by volunteers in a season, the program brings in enough surplus food to make 28,000 meals.
On this day, volunteers have gleaned 576 pounds of food. They don’t yet know that two days later they will glean 915 pounds.
“We filled the truck to the brim,” Hebert says.
Once the food arrives in the warehouse, the Foodbank’s operations teams then distribute it to food pantries or other programs across southern Vermont, as well through VeggieVanGo, the Foodbank’s mobile delivery van.
The volunteers glean crops that vary from season to season — staples like summer squash, zucchini, corn, kale, lettuce, radishes, apples, or other vegetables, depending on what the farms have available.
Hebert notes that in some seasons, volunteers have harvested as many as 15 different crops. He adds that while Harlow’s is the program’s “bread and butter” farm, the Foodbank has worked with more than 30 farms off and on over the past five years.
“I always want to say ‘yes’ when someone reaches out, because you never know what can develop,” he says.
Hebert remembers one happy surprise crop of flowers that brought smiles to volunteers and people using VeggieVanGo.
Last fall, he received a call from Deer Ridge Farm in Guilford, inquiring about gleaning apples and tomatoes. While there, Hebert noticed several bouquets of flowers on the side of the road. Jerry Smith, the farmer, told him they were last week’s flowers.
“We went out there for tomatoes, and we saw the flowers that were there,” he says. “We actually ended up getting flowers pretty regularly for the rest of the season.”
No recovery phase yet
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the rate of hunger in the state.
Hebert said the Vermont Foodbank and its partners have tried to respond to the pandemic’s effects as quickly and proactively as possible.
“COVID-19 has really shown that a lot of folks aren’t actually that far away from needing some sort of help,” he says.
Eventually, the coronavirus will run its course. Ending hunger, however, is proving to be an endless marathon.
“I think in some ways, COVID has started to open up that door a little to the work of food pantries,” Hebert observes, noting that people are becoming aware that “the Foodbank isn’t just for a small portion of the population, and that anyone who needs food should be fed.”
The Foodbank is working with a food security coalition — Hunger Free Vermont, Vermont FEED, NOFA-VT, and Shelburne Farms — which sent an open letter to lawmakers on June 3.
“We ask that $18 million be allocated to support the structures and systems in place now to meet the increased demand, transportation needs, labor costs, and communication needs associated with the COVID-19 response efforts,” wrote the coalition.
“We are also recommending an additional $20 million be allocated for direct support to families to increase current 3SquaresVT benefits by 15 percent and allow for a surge in applications when new outreach efforts are implemented.”
The coalition members reminded lawmakers that the state has yet to reach any form of post-COVID-19 recovery phase.
“As we continue to respond to the crisis and move toward recovery, we must also lay a foundation for reduced food insecurity in the future,” the coalition wrote.
“Settling for returning to some ‘tolerable’ number of hungry Vermonters is not acceptable, and would be a terrible waste of the opportunity we have as a state to make real change.”
Looking to the future, the coalition members noted that 3SquaresVT, while one of the most efficient programs at reducing hunger, is also underfunded.
“3SquaresVT benefit levels were never adequate for families facing food insecurity, and now more than ever, the benefit falls short for families to afford a nutritious diet,” the letter continued. “The state of Vermont must seize the opportunity presented by this crisis to help 3SquaresVT benefits meet people’s needs by supplementing the federal benefits.”
“The federal government is considering increasing benefits amounts by 15 percent, as it did temporarily in 2009,” they add. “The state has the opportunity to act quickly and increase benefits now, until Congress can make a decision to support this increase with federal dollars.”
Hebert has heard of what some describe as an unofficial Vermont motto: “Someone probably needs the help more than me.”
Stubborn pride and self-resilience might be good qualities in old-school Vermonters, but Hebert urges people to tap into another venerable Green Mountain tradition: practicality.
Food is available if you are hungry.
“There might be someone who needs it more than you, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t also benefit,” Hebert says. “I really believe everybody can be fed, and I would hate for stigma — or for any reason — to be the reason why we can’t feed everyone.”