Area volunteer gleaning group fights hunger

Posted: March 29, 2014

The Winchester Star

Volunteers gather corn for the St. Andrew Gleaning Network.

Winchester — Betty Heishman loves the immediacy of the work done by the Society of St. Andrew Gleaning Network.

During the day, volunteers pick over fields of crops, gleaning fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be left to rot. By that night or within a few days, the produce has been distributed through food banks and pantries near and far and can be found on the tables of people in need, said Heishman, Winchester District coordinator for the society.

“With the occasion that hunger is on the increase in our area and more people are affected by it, it is more important than ever that we make an effort to save the food going to waste in our area,” said Heishman, wholives in Stephens City.

She is working hard to bring the issue of hunger and what people can do about it to the forefront of people’s thoughts.

The seventh annual Hunger Summit (to be held on Sunday in Stephens City) will bring together volunteers, farmers and the agencies served by gleaning to celebrate the season and learn new ways to improve the program.

The farmers learn what it means to the clients to get this food, she said. The volunteers learn how important their work is and what this food has meant to those in need. The agencies learn about the generosity of the farmers and the amount of food out there that can be used.

But beyond that event, which is sold out, Heishman wants to encourage the local community to support the program, which offers fresh produce to food banks and pantries within a 90-mile radius.

In 2013, the Winchester District held 68 gleaning events to save 263,000 pounds of food that could be distributed to people in need, she said. It took 2,178 volunteers more than 5,000 hours to harvest the crops.

Yet a surprising number of the individuals, church groups and civic organizations who gave those hours traveled for the privilege of doing it, she said. “Usually we get a lot from Northern Virginia and other areas, but we don’t do so well here with the local people and I don’t understand that.”

The Winchester district serves counties in this area, Northern Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Washington, Heishman said.

The gleaning season is usually conducted from May through the first few weeks of November, or as long as the produce hasn’t frozen, she said.

Events usually last about two hours, depending on the number of volunteers available to work, she said. They pick over fields and orchards, some already harvested but with food left behind and others teeming with produce grown specifically for the program.

The atmosphere is always pleasant and happy as people fill baskets with potatoes, sweet corn, apples, plums, cabbage, peaches, green beans, strawberries or other crops, said Lois Shaffer, manager of Page One, a nonprofit organization whose services include a food pantry in Page County.

Page One has been the recipient of gleanings many times, and it is always fantastic to see people in need taking home fresh, healthy food, Shaffer said. “It’s a wonderful thing for a lot of people. Fresh produce is something we don’t get a lot of. Usually it’s canned and boxed goods. It’s wonderful that Betty has included us.”

People often don’t realize the extent of hunger in their community and how much of a difference they can make to fight it, Shaffer said. When she visits gleaning events, she especially loves to see families and youth groups teaching their young people about helping others.

“A lot of children don’t realize some families are struggling just to survive,” she said. “They think everybody just goes to Walmart and buys what they need and has plenty, but that is not the way it is.”

David Lay, co-owner of Linda’s Mercantile in Frederick County, participates in the St. Andrew’s program through another avenue — donating the food. The bulk of his business is wholesale for grocery stores, but he sometimes has produce that is good to eat but in appearance wouldn’t be as saleable. In those cases, he calls Heishman and she always comes running.

“With all she does for St. Andrew’s, getting this food and putting all this stuff together, I think she is a saint and an angel. If we had more people like Betty Heishman, this place would be a whole lot better place to live in,” he said.

The Society of St. Andrew, a national nonprofit organization, started its food distribution in 1983 in Richmond.

Heishman and her husband Cecil have been gleaning about 30 years. The drive, she said, is knowing they are doing something to improve somebody else’s life and health.

All it costs them is a little of their time and hard work. “It is certainly better than doing nothing.”

Information

To volunteer locally, contact Heishman at 540-336-2177 or gleaningworks@gmail.com. For additional information about the Society of St. Andrew, visit endhunger.org.

— Contact Laura McFarland at lmcfarland@winchesterstar.com