CLINTON – During a morning of picking mustard greens and turnips, some of the sixth-grade students stopped to complain that their backs hurt and the turnips leaves made them itchy.
But 49-year-old Krisandra Williams was not complaining.
The soft-spoken woman worked steadily through the morning, sorting through hundreds of pounds of pears before moving on to help harvest greens and turnips. Even though the unemployed painter is struggling to support herself and her elderly father, she was not getting paid for her work Thursday morning.
But she was getting a sense of purpose and pride from the work — and a little food, too.
“The only thing I have to buy (for Thanksgiving) is the turkey,” said Williams, one of thousands of volunteers who pick and sort 3 million to 5 million pounds of fresh — but often imperfect — fruits and vegetables for the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network.
The network, based on the biblical concept of taking the crops a farmer does not harvest and donating them to the poor, started informally in Washington in 1988. It became a formal organization in 1993 and has grown since.
This Thanksgiving, the network will help poor families across the region eat fresh fruits and vegetables that otherwise would have gone to waste on the holiday. But its distribution methods remain true to its grass-roots beginnings.
Williams, for example, filled her car with produce from Miller Farms, where she was working Thursday with students from Malcolm X Elementary School in the District. She planned to take a bundle to a neighbor who just went blind, but is raising two grandchildren. Another sack of produce was destined for a man with a heart condition who lives across the street from her Temple Hills home.
In her old Pontiac, with a dent near the headlight and a “Jesus Saves” sticker above the license plate, she planned to deliver the rest to a church.
That is how the Gleaning Network is supposed to work. Thomas Chandler, a Navy veteran and retired businessman who leads the organization, said volunteers take the food and donate to whomever asks, whether it’s a church, a food bank or a bedridden neighbor. They often drive through poor areas like a mobile, free farmers’ market.
About 8,000 people, many of them from schools, churches and other organizations, help the Gleaning Network harvest over the course of a year. Volunteers range from the homeless to people with advanced degrees.
Williams is one of a core group of a few dozen volunteers who help on a weekly basis, gleaning fields and sorting produce that is sent directly by some farms.
That group includes the “Food Lady,” who takes the produce home and leaves it on her Southeast Washington porch for whomever wants it. There’s the man with bundles of turnips in each hand who goes by Mr. T, and the retired computer processor who grew up on a North Carolina farm and used to swear she would never work in a field again.
They all glean.
Williams, who first learned about the program when she saw a Gleaning Network truck in Southeast Washington, said she has found support among the people she meets gleaning. One of them hired her to work on a construction project in her house. Some sessions include a free meal, and no one minds when Williams takes a Sunny Delight for her father. It makes his medicine go down more smoothly.
Part of the reward, volunteers say, is realizing that it is what is inside that counts.
“It’s a perfectly fine pear,” said Marcia Walker, as she pulled a blemished pear out of a bin containing about 600 pounds of fruit in the network’s Cheltenham warehouse. “It’s just that normally you wouldn’t have a pear like this in a supermarket.”
But that pear could easily end up next to a sandwich in a bag lunch for a homeless person, said Walker, a microbiologist at Georgetown University.
Gleaning has other rewards: For city kids, it is often the first time they get to see a farm.
“These kids aren’t the best pickers, but to me it was wonderful to see the inner-city kids doing this,” said Phil Miller, the Clinton farmer who turned his fields over to the network for gleaning Thursday. Volunteers picked 2,800 pounds of greens and turnips.
“It’s fun,” said Michelle Thomas, a Malcolm X sixth-grader who was at Miller Farms on Thursday. “You get to pick a lot of stuff.”
Although she is pushing 50, Williams said her first visit to a farm was just this summer, with the network. She is still learning: While she harvested potatoes on a Salisbury farm once, she had to ask a little girl there to point out the rooster in a group of chickens.
Williams said being part of the network has given her a lot to be thankful for.
“Being able to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and going out to the different farms,” she said. “That’s an experience in itself.”
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