Nanette Levin Special to The Catholic Virginian

Forty volunteers gathered around an 18-wheeler with 36,000 pounds of potatoes in a Virginia Tech parking lot on a chilly Saturday morning. The Nov. 10 event marked the fifth Potato Drop held by New River Valley Glean Team. The initiative was created four years ago as part of their mission to help families in need. 

The truck arrived from Maine with potatoes in 2-ton cardboard containers. Volunteers sorted the good potatoes into 10-pound mesh bags for 36 food providers stretching from Moneta to Lee County in Southwest Virginia. Even the rotten potatoes were used, distributed to local hog farmers. 

The Society of St. Andrew, a national gleaning society based out of Big Islands, Va., helps make this initiative possible. They work with farmers in Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin to solicit donations, arrange for trucking and coordinate drivers and schedules. The local charity pays half the freight delivery costs. For the New River Valley Glean Team, this is about 3½ cents a pound for potatoes distributed. 

“We’ve had an overwhelming response,” said John Galbraith, a founding member of the Glean Team and a member of St. Mary Parish, Blacksburg. “We could have given away 60,000 pounds of fresh potatoes. That’s how many were requested. So, it shows the need for fresh food.”

Started by five parishioners as part of the Justice and Peace Committee at St. Mary Parish, Blacksburg, the New River Valley Glean Team now draws from about 400 volunteers. 

“Our mission is outreach,” Galbraith said. “We reach outside of the parish community to help those in need in the community.” 

The New River Valley Glean Team was formed when parishioners had an opportunity to glean apples at one of Virginia Tech’s test farms and realized the volume of waste that occurred. 

“We had a lot of opportunity locally and in surrounding areas to talk to other people that might be able to help us,” said Mike Quinn, a St. Mary parishioner. “Once a farmer goes through and gets all the commercial value out of their crop, there may be another 10 percent that’s edible and presentable but not salable.”

Quinn noted eggplant, corn and apples comprise the majority of the gleaned crops. 

“It’s a satisfying activity in that you go out in the field, your pickup truck is empty and when you come back you have a full truck of produce,” he said.

Ten primary volunteers put in about 50 hours a week during the four-month harvesting period. The Potato Drop takes about 1,000 volunteer hours. 

In the first year, the Glean Team salvaged 2,000 pounds of vegetables. This year it will be 25,000 pounds. When added to the two Potato Drops and the local garden harvest, the group will distribute over 100,000 pounds of fresh food. 

“Maybe the biggest thing about the Glean Team is it’s just a small group of people that saw a need and wanted to fill it,” said Galbraith. “We aren’t doing it to get praise. We do this because we feel it’s the right thing to do.”

Three years ago, the Glean Team was offered a .15-acre plot of land where they started growing vegetables for distribution. This year cucumbers, black-eyed peas, green beans, yellow squash, zucchini, onions, Swiss chard, okra and winter squash resulted in more than 3,400 pounds of food harvested.

Growing crops helps the Glean Team extend the season and keep deliveries consistent as farmers who donate crops do not know when, how much, or which crops they will be able to provide. The Glean Team is constantly looking for more farmers who are willing to donate food and are willing to work with any farm or orchard within a reasonable distance from Blacksburg.

“We get a sense from each food provider how much food they can give away at that particular week and distribute it among dozens to make sure everyone has some, but no one has too much,” said Galbraith. “It’s a tricky business when you provide fresh food because it can’t be stored more than a couple of days.”

Dick Neves, a St. Mary parishioner, coordinates much of the distribution to the local food pantries. He serves on the board of the Blacksburg Interfaith Food Pantry, which was started over 30 years ago by a parishioner at St. Mary and operates with support from the church. He noted many food pantry clients lack fresh vegetables in their diets, so they could greatly benefit from the work of the Glean Team. 

“Parishioners have been the ones that have moved this forward,” says Christy Gabbard , a parishioner at St. Mary. “They believe in community and in supporting community and have enacted that belief in a number of different ways. It’s only taken a handful of people to really get fresh food and vegetables to people who need it.” 

The next Potato Drop is planned for Saturday, Jan.19, 2019. 

Editor’s note: For more information about starting a food distribution program or for volunteer opportunities with the New River Valley Glean Team, contact John Galbraith at (540) 392-1184.