Gleaning program helps fill a void at food shelf

MIDDLEBURY — Area farmers and a capable Middlebury College intern are working to fill some of the empty space at the Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) food shelf this summer through a “gleaning” program that is yielding a bumper crop of fresh vegetables and fruit.
The program — in its second summer at HOPE — has thus far seen a harvest of around 3,700 pounds of lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and other healthy produce. Those vegetables will help balance the diets of area residents who don’t have enough resources to put complete meals on their tables.
While the gleaned crops are not the silver bullet for the food shelf’s perennial summertime shortage, they are playing a key role in meeting low-income families’ needs during the critical months before Addison County schools and businesses traditionally mount their fall food drives.
Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE, credited Middlebury College sophomore Courtney Devoid for coordinating the gleaning program with great success during her summer internship.
“Having (Devoid) here has allowed us to provide people with a lot of healthy food that we otherwise wouldn’t have the capacity to collect,” Montross said. “And that has been critical, as the traditional food shelf offerings are really, really low at this point. It is cost-effective and it’s healthier.”
Devoid, 19, of Monkton, began her HOPE internship back on June 6. Her main task has been to gather produce contributions from around 15 area farmers and other donors to the gleaning program. Many of those contributions come from participants in the Middlebury and Bristol farmers’ markets.
Devoid explained that many vendors at those regular events are often left with unsold vegetables and fruit that they are happy to give to those who are less fortunate.
“Some of the lettuce may be a little wilty, but it is still good,” Devoid said.
She singled out the Lalumiere Farm on Ferrisburgh and the Elmer Farm in Middlebury for being particularly generous with surplus produce.
“They have both given us tons of stuff,” she said.
It didn’t start that way, however.
Devoid noted poor growing conditions this past spring got the gleaning program off to a slow start.
“A lot of farmers were behind in harvesting,” Devoid said. “I wasn’t seeing a lot of food in the beginning, which was a big concern.”
What a difference a string of sunny weeks can make.
“Lately, the harvest has increased exponentially,” she said.
The food comes in to HOPE’s offices on Boardman Street by the box full and is made available in the lobby and in a refrigerator in the organization’s food shelf. Eligible families are allowed to take what they need.
Tasty choices include a lot of the conventional, favorite veggies, along with some more unusual varieties, like Swiss chard and kale. Devoid acknowledged that most clients have been reluctant to snap up the lesser-known veggies. With that in mind, she has helped prepare recipes and done a cooking demonstration to help convince people to make more adventurous choices.
“One of my goals for the program is to increase people’s knowledge of vegetables that aren’t part of their everyday knowledge,” Devoid said.
And she also wants clients to learn how to grow their own veggies. Devoid this year planted a small vegetable garden on land behind the HOPE headquarters, using seeds donated by Agway and Paris Farmers Union. She has begun to harvest some nice vegetables, and hopes to impart that skill to clients who have property on which to plant.
This year’s harvest has been so abundant that there have been enough veggies to spread around to the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes and various community food shelves, according to Devoid.
Still, HOPE officials stressed that its food shelf is currently under-stocked for the 475 people per month who currently use it. Montross said items like cereals; peanut butter and jelly; tuna; plain, baked and refried beans; soups; canned fruits; juices; and pasta sauces are in particularly high demand.
Devoid’s internship runs for another two weeks. Montross is looking for volunteers to help carry on Devoid’s work until mid-September, when more help is expected to be on the way for fall gleaning crops that will include root vegetables and apples. Anyone who can help should call Montross at 388-3608.
While she will be going back to school this fall, Devoid plans to continue to do some part-time volunteering for HOPE. But she will enjoy a little break from vegetables.
“I’ve gotten to know so much about (vegetables), I have been dreaming about them,” Devoid said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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