New Wicomico nonprofit fights hunger by reducing waste in farm fields

By Susan Parker
Posted 9/14/22

 About 40 percent of the food grown by American farmers never makes it to anyone’s table. Instead, it’s left on the ground in farmers’ fields after their machinery has done its job. Or it’s rejected by retailers because American consumers demand perfection, which means perfectly good food never reaches supermarket shelves.

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New Wicomico nonprofit fights hunger by reducing waste in farm fields

Jean Siers, Regional Director of the Delmarva office of Society of St. Andrew.
Jean Siers, Regional Director of the Delmarva office of Society of St. Andrew.
Susan Parker Photo
Posted

About 40 percent of the food grown by American farmers never makes it to anyone’s table. Instead, it’s left on the ground in farmers’ fields after their machinery has done its job. Or it’s rejected by retailers because American consumers demand perfection, which means perfectly good food never reaches supermarket shelves.

“It’s probably much higher than 50 percent,” said Jean Siers, the Regional Director of the Eastern Shore office of the Society of St. Andrew, a food distribution nonprofit that’s new to Delmarva.

“Food gets left behind for a variety of reasons,” said Siers. “In addition to what’s left behind by farm machinery, USDA standards include shape and size, which means some of it is graded out of the retail market. So probably 50 percent or more of what is raised never gets eaten.”

The Society of St. Andrew rescues as much of that food as it can, using volunteer gleaners to pick up what’s left in the field by farmers or rejected by markets, so that people who cannot afford to be perfectionists can make use of it and enjoy the benefits of eating fresh vegetables and other produce.

Siers’ job as regional director includes developing a network of farmers who will call upon her to glean their fields, and a second network of agencies like churches and food pantries that can quickly collect the produce, which is perishable, and get it quickly into the hands of those who need it.

Walking into a cornfield on a hot summer morning for a gleaning might be compared to walking into a strange new universe. Despite the rustling of foliage in every direction, it is oddly hushed; the sounds of heavy traffic along a nearby highway ceases to exist. The early morning air is (almost) cool and refreshing before the sweltering heat of a summer day can work its way through the long, tall rows of cornstalks.

Volunteers on a recent gleaning were hard at work early in the morning. Mostly quiet and focused, they were trading some friendly banter as they quickly filled their buckets and passed them back and forth across rows of tall, green cornstalks.

Although some were there for the first time, they nonetheless functioned like a well-oiled machine, dumping ears of corn into a large watermelon box on a small flatbed trailer sitting patiently behind a John Deere tractor. Empties were quickly passed back to waiting hands. It was important to get the field gleaned before the temperatures began to soar. 

The morning’s gleaning was destined for the Eastern Shore branch of the Maryland Food Bank, which organized the event.

Siers recently moved to Salisbury with her husband, a journalist who is able to work from home. Siers is now busy building those networks and working to get more fresh food into the hands of those who otherwise might not have access.

 Society of St. Andrew origins

 In 1979, around the time Habitat for Humanity was first established, two Methodist ministers who lived in Big Island, Va. – which is neither big nor an island – counted themselves among a number of residents who were looking for ways to live more intentional lives and make a real difference.

As this idea began to spread, members of the small mountain community expanded their outreach. Eventually they found themselves at a church in Accomack County, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where they were speaking about sustainable living.

Some of the farmers who attended offered to donate a truckload of potatoes, and this became the catalyst that took them from talking about sustainable living to becoming a food distribution organization known as the Society of St. Andrew, whose mission is to rescue the produce modern farm machinery leaves behind and also fruits and vegetables that are rejected by retailers.

Today the Society of St. Andrew is the nation’s oldest and largest gleaning network.

 Best job in the world

 Siers grew up on a farm in Minnesota.

“I love being around farms and farmers,” she said. Eventually she settled with her family in Charlotte, North Carolina. There, she read about the Society of St. Andrew and signed up as a new volunteer.

“It never worked out that I got to actually volunteer,” Siers said. “But I was on their email list. At the tail end of the recession in 2012, the company I had been working for cut my hours.”

About that same time, Siers received an email saying the Society was looking for a part-time coordinator in the Charlotte area. It was 20 hours a week and paid little, but Siers applied and was hired.

“I was having a ball,” Siers said. “It’s the best job in the world.”

She was able to talk to people, spend time out in fields with farmers and volunteers who were happy to be out there gathering left-behind food.

“It’s such a tangible sense that at the end of the day, someone will be eating a better meal because I answered the phone,” Siers said. “If a farmer calls and has food available, we need volunteers to glean, drivers to transport and agencies to distribute it quickly. The more volunteers of all kinds we have, the better our network becomes, and the more people we can help feed.”

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