'Gleaners': leftovers by the ton to feed the hungry

There's a lot of food out there we never see. There are bins of green peppers that don't fit the common idea of how a pepper should be shaped. There are onions too big around to sit on a hamburger. On one California ranch recently, 80 tons of pink-cheeked peaches were free for the taking because the pits were split, and at the cannery a split pit frustrates the plunger of an automatic pit remover.

There are a lot of people, of course, who could use that food. But there's a certain art to getting it and giving it judiciously away.

Chet Diemer is one who practices it. Once a week an old white ship steams into this port, in a valley just beyond the northern reaches of Los Angeles commuting towns. It's the banana boat from Ecuador, flying the Del Monte flag.

The next morning, Chet Diemer and four or five comrades-in-arms he has mustered are here on the dock in work clothes, repacking boxes of bananas rejected from the conveyor belt.

This is a tiny part of a national webwork of food-salvage operations that have been spreading fast over the last five years.

None of them can even begin to tap the waste - often better food than that on the supermarket shelves - they could carry away if they had the trucks, storage, or manpower.

When one of the 80,000 to 90,000 boxes that roll out of the ship's hold has a ripe bunch in it, electronic sensors note the heat and kick it off the conveyor belt. By the time the box reached a grocery store in Utah, the whole box would be mushy.

Diemer and friends are all volunteers for FOOD Share, a local charity group founded and run by Rev. Virgil Nelson of Ventura, Its members salvage food and distribute it to the elderly and needy. The workers can keep for themselves up to half of what they salvage, though in practice they take much less. So Mr. Diemer, a retired upholsterer, and his crew pick out the ripe bunches, or the crushed ones, or whatever is bad, and take the good ones away - on this day, close to 150 boxes, well over 1,000 bunches. They've taken up to 1,350 boxes.

A big, cordial man with a thatch of white hair, Mr. Diemer knows his way around the banana dock and the inland farm co-ops. He knows who runs them and he treats them right. That's important.

At the co-ops, Mr. Diemer often manages to parlay his bananas into an assortment of the vegetable wealth the deep-irrigated Oxnard plain offers up year-round: cauliflower, celery, broccoli, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, strawberries, tomatoes, beans, zucchini, spinach, and avocadoes.

FOOD Share's 400 members, mostly senior citizens, gleaned and handed out 104 tons of produce in 1980 and are headed for more than twice that much this year.

Gleaners Statewide in Fresno, Calif., takes in 500 tons of food a year. And their supply is virtually bottomless. One farmer alone could give them 8 tons a day of small or misshapen carrots if the gleaners could take them.

The backbone of this charity network is food banks, warehouses set up to hold and deliver food to charities with feeding programs, like retirement homes or church-sponsored meal services. The national food bank clearinghouse - Second Harvest in Phoenix, Ariz. - has 38 member banks spread across the country. These and all the others try to salvage some of what the US Controller General's office reported in 1977 to be $31 billion a year in wasted food. That's 137 million tons, or 20 percent of the food produced in the country annually.

John Van Hengel founded both the food-bank movement (in 1965) and Second Harvest 11 years later. The latter he began with a government grant as a way of helping start up and organize other food banks.

Much of the food that comes into these banks is donated by large corporations like Beatrice Foods or Kraft, who get tax write-offs for their trouble. The donations are often baked goods, slightly dented cans, or underweight boxes.

The same year Hengel began Second Harvest, an irrepressible entrepreneur of charity in California's Sacramento Valley, Homer Fahrner, was waiting on tables at a nutrition center for seniors when he noticed people who were eating part of their meal and taking the rest home - not because they were full, but so they could squeeze another meal out of what they had been given. He thought, I could eat twice that much.

So he drummed together a few volunteers and started a gleaning group, going into backyard orange groves and truck gardens, gathering in what people didn't need themselves. It became Senior Gleaners and, as far as anyone knows, it was the first of its kind.

Then a truck heading north toward Sacramento blew off the ridge route one night in a high wind. The driver, dazed, fell asleep. By morning his load of Greek bread was getting too near its ''sell by'' date to go onto supermarket shelves. Mr. Fahrner heard about the bread through a church connection, and in trading the bread away to food banks, he realized the scope of the food waste in the area.

Acres of pears go unpicked on the trees because there aren't enough big ones among them to be worth picking. Or cherry orchards are so heavy laden with cherries that a mechanical harvester would break their limbs. Last year's orange crop was so bountiful that ranchers were paying a dollar a ton just to dump them.

Homer was too ambitious for his own group, Senior Gleaners, and they kicked him out, he says, because he wanted to expand into neighboring counties. Now he has started Gleaners Statewide and he's doing just that.

''If we had one day's work from the people on welfare and the people who are unemployed, we could lick the hunger problem in this country,'' he says. ''And maybe the world.''

Fahrner was booted from a Unitarian Seminary as a young man after six months for his preoccupation with the feeding of the poor. He was given a letter of warning from the California Bar Association - upon passing the bar exam during World War II - to desist in supplying the incarcerated Japanese-Americans with socks, razor blades, and Oriental food.

Now his Gleaners Statewide have won a much-welcomed endorsement from the state Farm Bureau.

'We're a nuisance from the farmer's point of view,'' he says. It takes great care, consistency, and organization to sway a farmer to allow people onto his land.

Once Fahrner talked a farmer into letting gleaners pick behind a mechanical harvester in a vast, mile-square patch of tomatoes. They wore badges and were scrupulous in where and how they picked. But others - sensing food for the taking - began to pour into the field, picking ahead of the harvester, jumping into their cars and tearing down to the other end of the field when the machine approached. The farmer, of course, was incensed, and was only gradually convinced that the poachers hadn't been the gleaners themselves.

This is a common problem, so gleaning operations are always carefully monitored and controlled and the people given training for picking the specific crop. Their stock in trade is their reputation with the growers.

Often, the farmer's complaint is that the gleaners can't take more than they do. Don't come, he may say, unless you can take at least five tons. Big operators are the gleaners usual benefactors. Small farmers live closer to the margin and tend to glean their fields themselves.

Gleaners helped one farmer cut his own waste by taking his misshapen bell peppers and making chili. The farmer convinced Del Monte to do the same thing, and now he has a market for them.

What the ambitious Homer Fahrner needs most now, he says, is executive help. ''We need people who can sell, who can go to the city council and say, 'Dammit, we're feeding your poor, now help us out.' ''

On the way back from the banana dock, Mr. Diemer drops off a box of bananas at the office of the Pleasant Valley Co-op and gets 10 boxes of surplus broccoli , romaine lettuce, celery, and avocadoes in return - not even a visible scratch in what sits in the co-op's refrigerator, which itself is the size of two basketball courts placed end to end.

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