Summer is the most challenging time for local food pantries. The number of people who need food increases when children aren’t in school, but the amount of donations and the number of volunteers decrease as seasonal residents leave the area. Andy Hendricks is just one local resident who is dedicated to making sure the pantries remain stocked with fresh produce from Shared Harvest Community Garden. “I call this God’s little garden because everything that is grown is given away to feed the surrounding areas,” said Hendricks, of the Village of Poinciana. “Without the volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to do anything.” Around the tri-county area, several groups are stepping up to make sure food pantries have what they need to serve the community.
At Shared Harvest, 400 Oak St., volunteers tend the 2-acre plot that produces more than 27 tons of fresh produce yearly. The food is donated to local pantries and soup kitchens at St. Theresa Catholic Church, St. Timothy Roman Catholic Church, Wildwood Food Pantry and others.
On May 4, the garden distributed 24 boxes of produce including squash, cucumbers, onions and zucchini, Hendricks said.
“This is a good cause and all the volunteers here like to give back, just as I do,” he said.
“I can’t thank the volunteers enough.”
Gleaning at Local Farms
New Covenant United Methodist Church also plays an important role when it comes to helping food pantries.
The church organizes a gleaning ministry to serve 16 food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the tri-county area. Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields once they are commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest.
The ministry is made up of volunteers who pick the fresh fruits and vegetables from October through May. Some of the items they collect include oranges, peaches, strawberries, cabbage, cucumbers and kale.
“Our church is large so we can help out all these different places,” said Leon Schien, chairperson of the gleaning ministry. “We have trucks, buses and great volunteers.”
Gleaning is referenced in the Bible in Leviticus 19: 9-10. Leaving part of the harvest for the less fortunate was one of the many laws given by God to Moses for the Israelites to follow in their daily activities, Schien said.
“We have a passion to want to help people and give back to the community,” he said. “We have been blessed with a good life and want to give back.”
In a typical year of gleaning, the ministry picks 50,000 to 70,000 pounds of food, Schien said. But during the first two years of COVID-19, they gleaned 200,000 pounds.
“Picking produce in the hot sun is hard work and these volunteers do it and have fun with it,” he said.
One of those volunteers is Debbie Edwards, who got involved through her sister.
“I said when I retire that’s what I want to do, because I love being able to help out,” said Edwards, of the Village of Tall Trees. “It just warms my heart.”
Addressing Food Waste
The Society of St. Andrew finds farms for the ministry to glean and Schien is grateful for that partnership.
New Covenant is an invaluable partner, said Rebecca Brockman, Florida program coordinator for Society of St. Andrew.
“Through our volunteers at New Covenant, we are able to reach communities that are far from the home office in Orlando and ensure that product that is being gleaned in the community, stays in the community,” Brockman said. “Through our leaders, like Leon Schein, we are able to foster a sense of volunteerism, service and food rescue, in local communities.”
About 47 million individuals in the U.S. struggle with food insecurity, yet over 133 billion pounds of food goes to waste every year, Brockman said.
“Through gleaning, SoSA is able to help mitigate food waste and lessen food insecurity,” she said. “Additionally, this allows the community to receive fresh produce.”
Since January, the SoSA Florida Office, through the dedication of its volunteers and partner agencies, has been able to rescue and distribute more than 1 million pounds of produce.
“Gleaning is a powerful tool in the fight against hunger,” Brockman said. “We lessen food waste, as food that is harvested will not be tilled under; we gather healthy and nutritious food, build bonds with individuals in the community, and ensure that our neighbors do not go hungry.”
The farms let the ministry come in right before the fields are plowed.
“We are extremely grateful for the farms that allow us to do this,” Schien said.
Feeding Families With Fresh Fruit
The previous owner of Hilltop Groves in Weirsdale already allowed the church to glean the trees and when Bill Reed bought the farm six years ago, he decided to let them continue doing so.
“It was fruit that was left over at the end of the season and not enough to wholesale,” Reed said. “So when we found out about the food banks and that the church would pick it with volunteers and give it to the less fortunate, we thought it was a great thing to allow.”
Reed thinks gleaning helps the citrus trees.
“I think it helps make the new fruit that’s growing get more nutrition from the tree when there’s less competition, last season’s fruit being picked off,” he said.
The church has gleaned around 30,000 pounds from the grove, Reed said he couldn’t believe they had picked that much.
“It’s awesome to think that not only do they glean citrus here in Central Florida, but vegetables as well, and it’s going to a great cause,” he said. “We never knew this program existed until six years ago and it makes us feel good to be a part of it.”
David Smithers, a volunteer for New Covenant, feels called to serve others.
“We just help others. That’s what we do,” said Smithers, of the Village of Springdale.
Smithers volunteers at Grace Tabernacle food pantry also and sees 130 cars come through once a week.
“You really want to help people in their time of need, but if the need is getting worse then that’s not good,” he said.
Gathering and Packing Food
The three Rotary Clubs of The Villages also lend a hand to local food pantries through quarterly food drives, monthly meetings at pantries to help pack food and raising money to benefit pantries throughout the year.
Julie Schmied, president of the Evening Rotary Club of The Villages, looks forward to every food drive.
“Every time we hold a food drive, the number of families we help continues to go up,” the Village La Reynalda resident said. “It always makes us feel good to know we are lending a hand to the community.”
One of the food pantries the group supports is at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Belleview.
“We chose this food pantry as one of the recipients because it helps families from Harbour View Elementary School, where many of us volunteer,” Schmied said.
The Lions Clubs also hold food drives to make sure local food pantries are stocked.
“It’s a great time to get together and show the community what we are all about,” said Judy Kohn, president of the Orange Blossom Gardens Lions Club. “While both clubs collect food, the items go to different places.”
All donations from the OBG Lions club benefit LovExtension, a nonprofit in Tavares that provides food to elderly residents in Lake County.
“We have a great relationship with them,” Kohn said.
The Lake Sumter Lions Club delivers to Beyond the Walls food pantry in Fruitland Park, the Wildwood Food Pantry in Wildwood and the Christian Food Pantry in Lady Lake.
“We know during summer it can be harder to get donations,” member Bob Disinger said. “By us hosting food drives, it saves the pantries money on the items they have an abundance of and it helps with their inventory.”
Staff writer Donovan Conaway can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5400, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Managing Editor Andrea Davis contributed to this report and can be reached at email@example.com.