It’s a cool, cloudy Fall afternoon. The sun is playing hide-and-seek, bursting through the clouds at odd moments. The farmhouse and its apple orchard look like a painting.

Then a friendly dog runs out, turning the painting into a scenic movie as she trots ahead of the car, glancing back to make sure you follow her to the parking area. Holly, a golden retriever-labradoodle mix, is used to guests and knows exactly where they are supposed to go.

The location is Hope, New Jersey. Longmeadow Farm – nestled in the Delaware Valley, not far from Jenny Jump Mountain – has catered to pick-your-own visitors since 1993, offering 13 varieties of apples, as well as pumpkins, raspberries, and flowers. Weekends are busy with visiting pickers, as well as those who come to buy preserves, honey, and craft items.

Today, though, Longmeadow Farm is hosting another sort of picking client: volunteers with NJ Farmers Against Hunger [FAH]. “We decided to work more closely with FAH this year,” Bradley Burke, the owner of Longmeadow Farm, said. “They’ve been here about every week since the beginning of September. They gather anywhere from 4-5 to 8-10 bins a week.” Each bin holds 1,000 pounds of apples.

Volunteers gleaning apples at Longmeadow Farm

The fresh produce doesn’t have far to travel. FAH is committed to providing the freshest, most nutritious food possible to those New Jersey residents who need it most. “Customers tell me ‘your apples are the best I’ve ever had!’” Burke commented. “Well, it’s because they are picked fresh off the tree. It’s weeks before you get the apples in your supermarket.” Those weeks leave fruit less tasty and less nutritious. But even supermarket produce often seems above the means of many New Jersey men, women, and children – let alone the means to get fresher, healthier local produce. According to recent estimates by the American Community Survey, approximately 8.7% of New Jersey residents lived below the poverty line in 2008.  The 2000 US Census – which found 7% of New Jersey households earning $10,000 or less – found that 9.2% of families with children under 18 lived below the poverty line. 10.9% of families with children under 5 years of age, and 7.8% of adults 65 and older, also lived below the poverty line.

Farmers Against Hunger began in 1996. Pam Mount, owner of Terhune Orchards in Lawrence Township, NJ, knew that some farmers arranged to donate their leftover produce to soup kitchens or local churches. She conceived of an organization that would build this practice into a statewide program. FAH now works with about 65 farmers throughout New Jersey, delivering approximately 1.5 million pounds of fresh produce each year to communities in need all around the state.

“There’s the part you can schedule, and the parts you can never schedule,” Judy Grignon, FAH Program Coordinator, described. “We have a specific route every Tuesday to certain farms, and they expect us… but there are a lot of variables. If the market is flooded with sweet corn, farmers will call us so that nothing goes to waste.”

Bradley Burke of Longmeadow Farm agreed: “There’s no benefit if the apples go to waste.” He also explained that the FAH gleanings directly help the farm. Any produce left on the trees or on the ground at the end of season can attract fungus and molds which could lead to a diseased orchard. Further, good fruit that has fallen from the trees but not harvested gets in the way of his pick-your-own visitors’ experience. But the major advantage, he summarized, is “that the apples don’t go to waste – if we can distribute them to needy people, it benefits everyone.”

Bradley Burke, owner of Longmeadow Farm, helps the volunteers glean produce for FAH

The produce harvested by FAH, with the help of approximately 1,000 volunteers each year, is taken to central distribution sites on Mondays through Thursdays. On a good day, the FAH trucks might carry 10,000 pounds of produce to distribute. At these distribution centers, local soup kitchens, food pantries, and community organizations each receive an equal share of the produce to take back and distribute in their communities. Weather permitting, local produce is available from June through December. During the remaining five months, several grocery companies support FAH by donating their excess produce.

Judy has seen the need for FAH grow as the economy has suffered. “The working poor make up the majority of our clients, senior citizens, people with disabilities. These days we see a whole new crowd of people come out for help because they haven’t been able to make ends meet and feed their families and pay their bills – there’s an increase in the number of people that are in need of help.”

John Malay of the Keep It Green Campaign described FAH as a “conduit”: “When farmers sell off development rights [given to them by the state], the money puts farmers in a much better financial position to be able to do charity and give back to the community – [FAH] simplifies the logistics of getting leftover [produce] to people who need it.” Ed Wengren, Field Rep for the NJ Farm Bureau, agreed: “It breaks a lot of farmers’ hearts to leave crops in the field like that. This program is very important.”

Volunteers bring their full baskets to Brian Strumfels, an FAH AmeriCorps volunteer, who adds them to the bins. Each bin holds 1,000 pounds of apples.

In recent years, FAH has grown to add an educational component for its clients. “We had a farmer donate about 8,000 pounds of acorn squash one time – and people didn’t know what it was or what to do with it,” Judy said. “That led us to come up with a Farmers Against Hunger cookbook and nutrition guide which is just based on New Jersey produce – apples to zucchini.” The cookbook includes nutrition information, storage information, and simple-to-prepare recipes. “The recipes are really basic because some of our clients don’t have a stove, and… [can’t afford] something that takes a bunch of ingredients.” FAH has also tried to educate its clients about nutrition: “We try to tell them why its important to eat more produce and to feed their families that way… we took direction from the people we’re providing food for; we noticed a lot of people eating fast food, saying they couldn’t afford produce. I went and bought 15 pounds of produce and it cost the same as one fast food meal for one person. So we made a poster comparing a hamburger, french fries and a soda – high in calories, fat, sodium – versus five pounds of potatoes, five pounds of carrots, and five pounds of apples – low in calories, cholesterol, fat, sodium – and we started showing people ‘look, this is what you can buy – spend your dollars more wisely.’” The chart was distributed to farm stands, partner organizations and WIC offices throughout New Jersey.

FAH is particularly aware of the importance of its volunteers at all levels, including farmers, volunteer gleaners, and New Jersey organizations and residents who help distribute the food. While John Malay described FAH as the “conduit,” Judy stresses that “farming in New Jersey is almost impossible because of the costs… Without the farmers, this program would not exist. Farmers in New Jersey are the most generous group.” Volunteer gleaners come from all walks of life, including student groups, Future Farmers of America, business groups, and even the communities receiving the produce. One such volunteer, Sylvia Roberts, both helps with the harvesting and distributes food: “Sylvia has taken on the mission for her community and shares the produce we give her with a low-income senior citizen building – there’s a whole network. If one organization has more food than they need, they pass it on. We all have a mentality of nothing going to waste,” explained Judy.

Sylvia, who lives in the Trenton area, expressed the importance of FAH to her community. “We, in our community, really need the help that [FAH is] giving to us. We don’t have just seniors – we have young people out here who don’t have work… and some have small kids… We really, really need the help – [FAH is] such a blessing to us and we really appreciate everything [they are] doing for us.”

For more information on Farmers Against Hunger, contact Judy Grignon at 609-462-9691.

All photos copyright Michal Rachlin

Know a great volunteer or volunteer organization? Leave me a comment or email me through this link to let me know!

Advertisements