A group of food rescuers volunteer at a local farm with GleanSLO to provide fresh produce to people in need.
The number of people in need of food assistance made a sharp increase during the pandemic and has been steady since, yet every year millions of pounds of food are left to rot in agriculture fields.
GleanSLO, under the umbrella of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County (FBC), collects fresh produce that helps make up the close to 3.5 million meals provided throughout the county. They have taken the concept of food rescue and turned it into a community resource by uniting farmers, health advocates, food providers, backyard gardeners and community volunteers to harvest and donate produce gleanings.
“The amount of people we help shot up immensely in 2021, about 151%,” said Dre Richards, food rescue manager of FBC overseeing GleanSLO. “It plateaued a little towards the end of the year, but now, what we are seeing with inflation kind of running out of control, is that the need is coming right back. It’s coming on strong.”
FBC works with about 100 nonprofit and municipal organizations located throughout the county. These include church pantries, free meal sites, after-school programs, homeless shelters, recovery homes, and women’s shelters. Last year, more than 4 million pounds of food was distributed including over 300,000 pounds of fresh produce harvested by GleanSLO.
“I’m not sure all food banks do this, but we make it a priority to have around half of the food we give out be produce,” Richards said. “It’s directly tied to health outcomes in the community. When people have access to that fresh produce they’re less likely to be struggling with long-term health issues like diabetes. With younger students, having access to fresh produce, they’re able to pay more attention in class. It’s important to the food bank that we have these nutrition standards that we adhere to so that we’re helping the community thrive.”
An increasing number of college students are also reaching out to the FBC for resources.
“We’re finding that the stigma of using food assistance is becoming much less than it was before,” Richards said. “Students are seeing us as being like a lifeline that that they can depend on to help them. It’s sort of normalized.”
In addition to working at field sites, GleanSLO works with produce growers at the farmers’ markets in SLO on Thursday nights, in Baywood and in Templeton. At the end of the market, farmers put produce in crates to be picked up by volunteers.
“We’ve got some great farms that regularly donate to us,” Richards said. “We are very grateful to the farmers that support us and to everybody that reaches out.”
This year about 450 volunteers participated in 244 field harvests, which include farms and backyards.
Feeding those in need is only part of the benefits GleanSLO provides, volunteers are also on the receiving end.
“Sometimes we are in someone’s backyard in SLO or sometimes we’re going out to a ranch in Arroyo Grande,” Richards said. “The myriad of beautiful scenery that you get to see is a huge benefit for going; it’s a different office every day.”
Despite the end of what many might think of as the growing season, volunteer gleaners are still needed. There are plenty of gleaning opportunities for people of all abilities. Farmers who support local food rescue programs have crops such as pomegranates and a variety of squash.
A further-reaching benefit of the organization is the environment. Richards said that by keeping food out of the landfill, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.
Another benefit is the social network created among volunteer gleaners.
“One of the things that I think is overlooked, but is one of the most beautiful things about going out to glean,” Richards said, “is getting to know that network of people who are interested in food insecurity. There’s a huge social scene around eating, and it’s great to get out there and see other people that are doing the same thing and talk with them about what they’re cooking right now and what’s growing in their garden.”
GleanSLO is growing itself. The non-profit recently opened a hub in North County and is ready to start doing gleans in that area, allowing even more fresh produce to go to distribution sites north of the Cuesta Grade.
If you, or a friend, have extra fruit on your tree or veggies in your garden, consider contacting the SLO Glean program coordinator for inquiries regarding crop donation, scheduling a harvest, questions about volunteering and signing up for a harvest at email@example.com or by calling 805-238-4664.
For readers who want to help but playing in dirt or climbing on ladders is not your thing, equipment is also needed such as harvest bags, foldable harvest crates, clippers and extension pole pickers.
For information on all GleanSLO projects and goals, check out GleanSLO.org.