Volunteers pick through fields to help the hungry

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 2, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
GOLD HILL — When John Yelton realized he had a plethora of tomatoes left over after his crop was harvested, he decided to spread the wealth.
But he didn’t bag them up and pass them out to friends and family. Instead, he opted to give them to people who might otherwise be eating tomatoes out of a can rather fresh from the field.
Yelton called up the Society of St. Andrews, a faith-based nonprofit that helps the hungry, and told them the tomatoes were there for the taking.
“We go out and glean after the farmers get the best of the crop,” field supervisor Sylvester Black said. “Then we deliver the produce to homeless, shelters, soup kitchens, senior citizens’ homes, just people who need food.”
About 10 volunteers from Charlotte to Albemarle showed up at Yelton’s farm, J.J. Produce, to pick tomatoes Saturday morning.
“It’s a job they are undertaking because it’s going to get very hot,” Yelton said before the gleaning began at 8:15 a.m.
But the heat didn’t seem to bother the jubilant volunteers.
They chatted and laughed as the temperatures rose into the upper 90s. Once in a while, they would stop to wipe sweat from their brows, but the smiles never seemed to leave their faces.
Every edible tomato was picked despite shape or size. Even the ones with a slight blemish were thrown in boxes. Looks don’t matter when it comes to gleaning, they still taste the same, Brown said.
Sheila Black of Charlotte has developed her own picking method. Instead of hauling around a heavy box, she simply gathers as many tomatoes as she can in her shirttail before dropping them off at the end of the row.
Black was joined by her friend Janet Webb of Huntersville for the first time Saturday.
“I’ve known Sheila since 1987 and she’s always inviting me to get involved,” Webb said. “I came because I know it’s a good thing to do, we can get this food out to people and it won’t go to waste.”
Black said gleaning is a “very Biblical” experience, referring to the Old Testament practice.
Deuteronomy 24:19 says “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.
Ann Hester, of Charlotte, brought along her mother, Beverly Hester, and 14-year-old daughter, Kate Fialko, to glean Saturday.
Beverly said it was her first time gleaning. She was in town visiting the family and was heading back to Raleigh so she decided to join in.
“I think it’s a great idea to use this food to help others” she said. “And it was right on the way.”
But Kate is no stranger to gleaning. Saturday was her third trip to the fields with her mother.
“I live in the middle of the city, so it’s nice to be outside in the country,” she said.
Ann said she stumbled onto information about the Society of St. Andrews’ Gleaning Network while looking for public service opportunities to do with her kids.
She said gleaning goes hand-in-hand with the family’s interest in helping the needy.
They participate in Charlotte’s CROP Walk, a hunger awareness event, annually.
Ann said she’s glad her family can help get fresh produce to those who normally wouldn’t have access to it because of cost. Typically food banks are stocked with boxed and canned items so fresh produce is a rarity for needy families, she said.
Her family is also gaining something from gleaning.
“I like that they get to see where the food comes from,” Ann said. “It’s a lot of fun and a valuable experience for the kids.”
The group managed to salvage about 1,000 pounds of tomatoes Saturday that would have otherwise been left in the field to rot or plowed under for a new crop. The week before, they picked 1,800 pounds.
Those tomatoes will end up on the dinner tables of low-income families in the area.
The harvest was set to be deliverered to the Salvation Army in Salisbury, Love Christian Center in East Spencer and a church in Albemarle.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.