AS A MOM with seven kids, Bennington resident Hazel Gershfield knows how hard it can be to keep fresh, healthy food on the table.
As the new gleaning coordinator for Hillsborough County, Gershfield is helping channel more local produce to families in need by collecting food destined for the Dumpster and delivering it to local food pantries.
Since July, she has gathered more than 1,000 pounds of food that would have gone to waste from farms, farmers markets and retailers, and redistributed it to the Peterborough Food Pantry, the Nashua Soup Kitchen and other organizations that provide food for low-income residents.
"It's unfortunate that not everyone can afford healthy food," said Gershfield. "We want to bring good, local organic food to everyone."
The Hillsborough County Conservation District Office in Milford oversees the gleaning project, a new effort based on an old tradition.
"We started with a small, six-month grant from the University of New Hampshire's Farm to School program," said District Manager Kerry Rickrode who added that the response has exceeded even the most idealistic expectations. The grant ends in December, and Rickrode is now searching for additional funding.
"Gleaning has been done for a very long time," said Rickrode. "New Hampshire is just getting started. It's been very successful in Massachusetts and Vermont."
The Boston Area Gleaners have harvested more than 200,000 pounds of surplus produce from area farms since the group began back in 2004.
But gleaning actually dates back to biblical times when farmers would leave portions on their crops in the field where they could be harvested by the poor. For centuries, different cultures have used gleaning as a practical type of social support. And it couldn't be more relevant than it is today.
According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Americans toss out about 100 billion pounds of food each year. Some estimates suggest that as much as 20 percent of the nation's food supply goes to waste.
At the same time, a record 48 million Americans are now enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, which is commonly known for food stamps and which costs the country $80 billion a year. Apart from some small administrative costs, gleaning is free and actually saves businesses and communities money in waste disposal costs.
Although the Hillsborough Country Gleaning program may have been meant to test the water, Gershfield sees it as a potential movement, and is doing everything to help get it rolling.
In addition to gathering produce that doesn't sell at farmers markets, Gershfield and her gleaning crew — her three young children, Rose, Jessie and Owen — have picked surplus vegetables at local farms.
"They are growing food, and if they can't sell it, they are grateful someone will get to eat it," she said.
She has also made the rounds to area shops and markets to pitch gleaning to owners and managers. The 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act frees food donors from potential liability as long as they take basic steps to ensure food safety.
She is also starting to approach individuals with big back yard gardens and fruit trees that produce more than they can use.
"As the gleaning word spreads, people will know what I do and will get involved," she said.
Gershfield believes that access to fresh, organic produce will help raise awareness about nutrition. And she's been surprised by how successful some of her gleans have been at the food pantries.
"People even liked the kale — the kale!" she said with a laugh.
Eileen Brady, a social worker at the Nashua Soup kitchen, said it's a misconception that urban low-income families will pass on the fresh vegetables and go for foods that are processed and packaged.
"Nutrition has been in news and on all of the talk shows and people are interested," said Brady who added that Gershfield's gleans have been huge help for the soup kitchen and a big hit with recipients.
Brady said gleaning has always taken place in New Hampshire but this is the first time it's been organized and able to reach new groups of people, particularly those who live in cities.
"People can't glean for themselves, so they need someone to do it for them," she said.
And Gershfield is happy to do just that, and hoping to interest some volunteers to get on board.
So far, Gershfield said one of the biggest paybacks for gleaning has been discovering how many farmers, vendors and individuals are willing to step up and help.
"There are so many good, kind hearts out there, it blows my mind," she said. "With gleaning, you see there's real hope."