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Richard Coons holds a handful of cherry tomatoes that he plucked from the plants at Red Rake Farm near Mangohick.
Richard Coons empties a bucket of cherry tomatoes he gleaned at the Red Rake Farm for the Central Virginia Food Bank.
Kameron Rigg carries a bucket of cherry tomatoes he gleaned to help stock the food supply for area food banks.
Amber Rigg, 6, gleans cherry tomatoes at the Red Rake Farm. She was with a group from Wright's Chapel United Methodist Church.
Prolific orange orbs practically pop off the vines at Red Rake Farm in Hanover County.
For farmer Peter Perkins, the organic sweet, orange cherry tomatoes garner $5 per pint at a Northern Virginia farmers market. Well, these tomatoes won't. They're ripe, juicy and tangy. But they're not the highest quality, so the sooner they come off the vines, the sooner the green tomatoes left behind ripen into $5-per-pint delicacies.
For Carol Breitinger, communications director of a hunger-relief agency based in Western Virginia, these tomatoes could represent part of the 96 billion pounds of food that rots in fields, at warehouses and on the side of the road in America every year--fresh produce wasted before it ever makes it to market.
But Perkins' tomatoes won't be part of that 96 billion pounds of wasted food. About five years ago, he realized he needed help getting the not-quite-commercial-grade tomatoes off the vines. He got out the phone book, looked up "gleaning services" and found Breitinger's agency, The Society of St. Andrew.
The nonprofit gleaning group is based in Big Island, a town between Roanoke and Lynchburg. Its gleaning networks, covering 20 states, serve more than 500 food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens, picking leftover fruits and vegetables after the harvest.
The Richmond-area gleaning network, which plucks cherry tomatoes from Perkins' farm, collected more than 10,000 pounds of fresh produce this summer, said gleaning coordinator Jennifer Murrow.
Volunteers donated the blueberries, corn, tomatoes and more to the Richmond food bank, the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank, several church food pantries in Caroline County and soup kitchens in Richmond.
The fresh produce helps keep low-income people healthy, said Oya Oliver, director of the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank.
Fresh food costs more--apples, pears, tomatoes and green beans sell for about $1.50 per pound at the grocery store. Canned ravioli costs 79 cents per pound and a box of macaroni and cheese, 75 cents. The average food-stamp allotment in Virginia is $220 per month, and the cheaper foods last longer on that budget. With rising fuel costs, many who don't qualify for food stamps still struggle to buy groceries, Oliver said.
Also, fresh foods don't have the same shelf life as canned and boxed goods, meaning people with limited time and money for gas have to make more trips to the grocery store, said Dayle Reschick, resource development director for the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank.
Food banks and area faith-based food pantries rely on donations to stock their shelves, and those donations don't always include healthy options. Farms and gleaners sometimes drop off fresh fruits and vegetables. But supply isn't the only obstacle. Oliver said often when fresh produce arrives, clients don't grab it off the shelves.
She said the food bank has to encourage and educate people to eat healthy. It provides glossy, colorful food pyramids for children, lesson manuals on healthy eating and fiction books dealing with nutrition to every site of its Kids Cafe program, which provides nutritious after-school snacks to low-income children. The agency's Food For Life program for seniors also includes nutrition lessons.
And when unusual produce arrives, food-bank staff call the Virginia Cooperative Extension offices for recipes to give clients, so they'll be more inclined to pick up--and use--the vegetables.
The outreach efforts help ensure those cherry tomatoes will make it to the tables of the area's poor. That's the outcome envisioned by the dozen or so volunteer gleaners who picked those tomatoes last week at Perkins' farm.
The gleaners, ages 6 to 81, their fingers stained yellow-green from the plucking, filled plastic buckets with the orange cherry tomatoes. A truck from the Central Virginia Food Bank loaded up the buckets and took them to Richmond.
Ladysmith resident Jeanne Campbell brought two of her children and a friend's kids, too. They had all brought items to a church food pantry before, but gleaning showed them how everyone from the farmer, to the volunteer tomato pickers, to the food bank workers help feed the poor.
"They get a feel for how it can start here and go all the way up," Campbell said.
Those buckets will be part of the 30 million pounds of food the Society of St. Andrew will save nationwide this year, Breitinger said. Gleaning "is just good common sense," she said. The food that's wasted every year could more than feed the 37 million Americans who go hungry.
"There is enough food wasted to feed every one of those people every day," Breitinger said. "It's a sin to let it rot in the field when there's nothing wrong with it."endhunger.org fredfood.org
Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973
The Virginia Cooperative Extension offers a Family Nutrition Program, funded through the Department of Social Services. It helps people who could be eligible for food stamps. Mary Belman, program assistant, teaches people how to eat healthy on a budget. Here are some of her tips:
Make a menu: Survey your fridge and pantry, look through sale fliers, then plan a menu for the week.
Make a list: Base your grocery list on that menu. And stick to the list when you go to the store.
Shop once a week: Any more or less and you'll spend more money.
Don't shop hungry: This tempts you to buy expensive snacks and ready-to-eat foods.
Go generic: Store brands often offer a better buy with good quality.
Read the labels: The first ingredient is the one with the largest quantity. Don't waste money on foods that provide mainly fat, sugar and empty calories.
Go skim: Low-fat milk often costs a little less and offers the same nutritional value as whole milk, without all the fat.
Stay in season: Fruits and vegetables cost less in season.
Be fresh: Buy only vegetables and fruits free from wilting, bruises and decay.
Chill out: Sometimes frozen or canned fruits and vegetables offer the same nutrition for less money.
Make your own: Homemade baked goods can have more iron and complex vitamins than the ready-to-eat varieties. And they usually cost less.
Go for the grain: Whole-grain cereals provide more nutrition and tend to cost less than the sugary, fancy-flavored cereals.
Jill La Brasseur, communications specialist for the national initiative Fruits & Veggies--More Matters, offers more tips for boosting nutrition on a budget:
Cut back on meat: Most Americans eat more than they should. "Open up a can of peas and carrots, and serve everyone a smaller pork chop," La Brasseur said.
Toss in a handful: Casseroles and Hamburger Helper meals can be cheap and easy. Make them go farther--and bump up the nutrition factor--by adding frozen vegetables.
Surf the Web: The Fruits & Veggies--More Matters Web site offers hundreds of fruit and vegetable recipes, along with a meal-planning guide. Other sites offer similar helps.
Stock up on sales: Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables and 100 percent juice sometimes go on sale. Stock up at these times. The frozen, canned and juiced options offer almost as much nutrition as fresh produce, La Brasseur said.
Consider nutrition: That bag of potato chips might cost less per volume than the bag of baby carrots. But you get more nutrition per dollar with the carrots.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org
The practice of picking leftover crops dates at least back to biblical times, when farmers were told to leave food growing in the fields for the widowed and poor.
More and more hunger relief groups have turned to the practice in the past year, as rising food and fuel costs have made it difficult to keep the cupboards packed.
The lack of fresh fruits and vegetables could be one reason why poverty has been linked to obesity. A recent study found that seven of the most obese states are also among the top 10 poorest states.
A study on American fruit and vegetable consumption found that poor people were less likely to eat enough produce. The survey said some reasons for this included: the low cost and convenience of snack foods; widespread advertising for "nutritionally poor foods"; and government subsidies. The U.S. government subsidizes corn and cotton crops but not more nutritional fruit and vegetable crops.
--Amy Flowers Umble