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Florida citrus season helps bridge gap for hungry families

Florida citrus season helps bridge gap for hungry families

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Florida citrus season helps bridge gap for hungry families

Jan. 24, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0788}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND — The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports nearly 11 percent of U.S. households — about 36 million Americans — were food insecure in 2006. That means they had difficulty getting enough food for everyone in the household at some point during the year because they lacked money or resources.

Members of United Methodist churches in the Central Florida area sort citrus brought from groves and people's yards to a collection site. The Florida office of Society of St. Andrew will distribute the fruit to local food programs. Photo courtesy of Society of St. Andrew, Florida office. Photo #08-0734.

With statistics like that it’s hard for volunteers like Dargan Watts to see good food go to waste.

For more than five years Watts, a member of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, has collected unwanted produce left in groves or fields for Society of St. Andrew, a national hunger-relief organization that operates various statewide, volunteer-driven gleaning networks that salvage food farmers can't use or sell after harvest. The agency also asks homeowners to donate citrus from their trees.

The gleaning networks coordinate with local farmers, thousands of volunteers and food programs that accept the produce collected. Volunteers come from various church denominations, synagogues, youth groups and civic organizations.

The goal is to bridge the gap between food waste and hungry Americans.

“It’s a wonderful program, and gleaning is not hard work,” said Watts, who has picked cabbage, carrots, strawberries and citrus. “I have gleaned 13 or 14 weekends in a row and enjoyed doing it. I just wish more people would do it.”

Matching resources to needs

That’s the message Society of St. Andrew wants to spread throughout the year, but especially now in Florida when citrus is in season.

Barbara Sayles, director of Society of St. Andrew’s Florida office, said commercial fields and groves yield a higher return, but no amount of produce is too small to be collected. She said the office will arrange for volunteers to glean one tree or an entire grove or field so excess produce won’t be plowed under or discarded at landfills.

Volunteers gleaned corn and cabbage from Zellwood, Fla., farms last fall, and more than 200 volunteers collected approximately 50,000 pounds of assorted citrus in the Orlando area Jan. 19. Volunteers will move on to groves and homes in Volusia County Feb. 2.

Florida, by volume, is one of the top five agricultural producers, Sayles says, and the society’s Florida network salvages more than a million pounds of fresh produce each year. Last year the Florida office gleaned 1.3 million pounds of produce, including 226,465 pounds of citrus.

Sayles said United Methodist churches help make gleanings successful, providing more volunteers than any other denomination.

“The (Florida Conference) United Methodist Church is very important to us,” she said.

Approximately 99 Florida Conference churches and organizations work with the Florida network to help collect the produce. Sayles says those donations are especially needed now because food program shelves are empty.

A homegrown solution

When she speaks to local churches Sayles said she usually asks how many in the group have citrus on trees in their back yards. She then asks how many of them eat or use every piece of fruit.

The Florida office of Society of St. Andrew estimates it salvaged more 1.3 million pounds of produce, including 226,465 pounds of citrus, last year. Photo courtesy of Society of St. Andrew, Florida office. Photo #08-0735.

“Usually no hands go up,” she said. “I then ask what happens to the fruit they do not use, and they unanimously say, ‘It falls on the ground and rots,’ to which I say, ‘Yes and the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that about 96 billion pounds of food goes to waste in America every year.’ ” 

Watts said he strongly dislikes the idea of good food rotting on trees or the ground because owners don’t know what to do with it or there aren’t people to pick it.

“I wish everybody could go to a soup kitchen and see how appreciative people are who receive the food that would otherwise go to waste,” he said.

Craig Van Gundy has experienced that appreciation. The member of Middleburg United Methodist Church said for two years a farm in nearby Hastings has given the church white potatoes, thanks to a connection from Society of St. Andrew. The unwanted potatoes, usually used for making potato chips, are given to 250 families who regularly receive food from the church’s food bank.

“I’d say we received about two tons in early spring,” he said. “We just go there with a truck and trailer and bring back the potatoes. It definitely helps out the people who come here for food.”

The Rev. Ken Horne, executive director of Society of St. Andrew, said he firmly believes hunger can end — if people are committed to the cause. He said hunger exists in less developed countries due to famine caused by drought, war and pestilence, but for the first time in the history of the human race eliminating hunger is possible.

Horne, who has worked in hunger relief for 28 years, said what's needed are time, energy and large quantities of aid to poor countries in the form of improvements in infrastructure, agriculture and education.

“In the more developed world, people go hungry in the midst of plenty,” he said. “This phenomenon is most blatantly visible in our own country. … The problem in America is waste and equitable distribution. The American people, overwhelmingly, have a compassion for helping those in need, but our national leadership doesn’t seem to understand that feeding the hungry is what we, the people, want, and so the problem goes largely unaddressed in political arenas.”

Horne says religious leaders and institutions are aware of hunger, but they would rather focus on hot topics than God’s fundamental command, “when you see your neighbor hungry, feed him.”

“Instead of allowing issues of theology and philosophy to divide us, America’s religious bodies should band together and show our political leaders and our people a vision of what ‘one nation under God’ could look like if we let that God guide our priorities,” he said.

Horne said hunger may not be a national priority because it has been a part of society for so long — the nation has grown accustomed to it.

“The temptation, even in the anti-hunger community, is to go about our tasks as if hunger will always be with us,” he said. “We get caught up in our own stuff, our own tasks, and just don’t think beyond today’s problems. Awareness of programs … that feed the hungry and the opportunity to connect with those programs in an efficient and effective way are the key to getting more people with unwanted produce to contribute it for the greater good.”
Individuals who would like more information about opportunities to serve — making a financial contribution, volunteering to glean, allowing volunteers to glean on their farms or properties, encouraging their churches to partner with the ministry — may contact the Society of St. Andrew’s Florida office at 800-806-0756 or visit Devotional giving programs during Lent, Advent or Vacation Bible School are also available.


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.