When the Boston Area Gleaners started in 2004, the operation basically consisted of Oakes Plimpton and a handful of volunteers driving about in his minivan. Laurie "Duck" Caldwell, would later add her pickup truck to the mix; together, they would travel from farm to farm harvesting surplus produce that would later go to food pantries or food relief organizations.
Today, Boston Area Gleaners harvests over 250,000 pounds of produce a year from around 50 farms in the area, with the help of over 1,200 volunteers. As the harvest season winds down, the Waltham-based group is among several organizations west of Boston — others include Waltham Fields Community Farm and the Ashland Farmers Market — working to bring fresh food to all this fall.
"Thanksgiving is the one national holiday that's really centered around food," said Caldwell, now the gleaners' executive director. "The spirit of the holiday is supposed to be about gratitude and giving thanks, so I think that there's a heightened awareness during this holiday in particular that is 'if I have some food I should make sure that other people in my community have food too.' "
Farmers often end up with up to 20 percent more produce than what would typically sell, said Caldwell, produce they grow to protect against crop loss. But donating this excess to worthy nonprofits is a practice most farms can't afford: It simply costs too much to harvest, wash, and prepare the vegetables for distribution.
That's where the gleaners come in — providing the missing labor link. In groups of around 20 volunteers each trip, they visit farms that alert them to excesses in need of quick harvesting. The gleaners are active year round, harvesting root crops until the snow drives the volunteers into barns of stored, unsold produce. What they salvage is then distributed to local pantries and hunger relief agencies such as The Greater Boston Food Bank and Food For Free.
"In many pantries, staple items are shelf-stable types of food, so they're going to be more processed, have higher calories and [low] nutritional value,'' said Caldwell. "If we're giving people who are already economically vulnerable food that's going to make them sick, it's going to make them even more economically vulnerable and they are not going to be able to recover from that."
"People don't realize how rich our food shed is here. . . . What we're trying to do is build a supply chain from the farmers to people who need it the most. We're trying to provide it in a reliable way over the long term."
The gleaners operate out of a Waltham site owned by the UMass Center for Agriculture that is also home to The Waltham Fields Community Farm . The farm, which aims to provide 20 percent of its harvest to hunger-relief and food-access organizations, also holds a farm-to-school program from September until December. It distributes a vegetable a month — this month it's kale — to Waltham Public Schools at a discounted rate of a dollar a pound, which is then incorporated into student lunches.
"Our mission is to provide sustainable, organically grown food to . . . low-income individuals and families" said Shannon Taylor, the farm's executive director. "It's the basis of our organization, and we find many different avenues in which to fulfill that mission."
One of the other goals of the operation is to educate the community about farming and food production. It offers afterschool sessions at the farm from summer to the fall at which children can learn about harvesting their own vegetables to cook.
"I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I've actually never had a yard, and I still don't actually,'' said Alex Lennon-Simon, the farm's education and outreach coordinator. "So bringing nature to kids who don't have access to things like that is obviously really important for me. It changed my life."
The farm operates a farmers market specifically for low-income households every summer. Although that market has wrapped up for the season, the one in Ashland will stage its last 2015 hurrah with an indoor holiday event Saturday, Nov. 21, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Like those in Waltham and Brookline, the Ashland market accepts payments under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which seeks to aid low-income families and individuals. In fact, the market offers its own match of up to $20 a week for those getting the federal benefits.
"We wanted to level the playing field," said Florence Seidell, a member of the market's board of directors.
"It's nice vegetables for people in town,'' said her husband, Rob Moolenbeek, the market's treasurer, "and they do cost a little more than the stuff in the supermarket."
The market also works with farmers to ensure that a portion of unsold produce at the end of the market day goes to the town's food pantry.
Cynthia Chen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.