On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Costco was a hub of activity. Not just with shoppers but with very much the opposite: Gleaners, there to collect goodies that didn’t sell over the holiday.
Zadie Ryan and her husband, Pat, come to Costco every Monday to pick up produce that is still good but has been pulled from the shelves. They pack it in their cars and take it to Calvary Church of the Nazarene, where a food pantry is open every Monday.
“We have gleaned anywhere from 200 pounds to 1,200 pounds in just one day. It’s amazing,” Zadie Ryan said. “It’s very random. We never know.”
“Sometimes it’s 300, 400 pounds of bananas. Sometimes it’s 500 pounds of potatoes,” Pat Ryan said.
When they get to the church about 1:30 p.m., people — families and seniors — often are already waiting in line, although the pantry won’t open for 2 1/2 hours.
Matthew Cole, pastor of Calvary Church of the Nazarene, said whatever they receive makes a huge difference to the 30 or so families who come by once a week.
“We’re not going to solve hunger,” Cole said. But the bags of fresh produce might help the families make the decision on putting something healthier on the table, rather than having to choose between nutritious food and a heating bill in the winter or a prescription if a child is sick.
“We may not completely alleviate hunger, but it gives them a little empowerment to make healthier choices,” he said. “And individuals say they have seen a significant difference in their overall health and way they are eating. ... This can make the difference with healthy nourishment, and the domino effect is immense.”
The scene is repeated every day at Costco and at other groceries, with people picking up perishable goods pulled from shelves before the sell-by date and hauling the food to various locations. GleanKy, a nonprofit group that specializes in collecting unwanted produce and putting it in the hands of needy Central Kentuckians, will gather hundreds of pounds of fruit and vegetables to take immediately to more than 60 local shelters and soup kitchens.
It’s quite a change from 2010, when the organization began as Faith Feeds with a handful of volunteers and a truck, collecting apples and garden leftovers to help feed the hungry. This past August, GleanKy surpassed 1 million pounds gleaned so far and is on track to glean a record 275,000 pounds for the year, almost all done by an army of more than 400 volunteers.
Much of the growth has come from grocery stores: They glean from Costco and from Lucky’s every day, often from Good Foods Co-op, Fresh Thyme, Fresh Market and Whole Foods, too.
And they glean from the Lexington Farmers Market in the summer, and in the fall from farms, orchards, pumpkin patches and anyone else who calls up to offer produce, if someone will come and get it.
GleanKy has a “rapid-response team,” a group of 20 to 25 volunteers who can be contacted and counted on to show up at the drop of a hat to move fresh produce. They try to get the food into the hands of an organization that can use it within 30 minutes of pickup.
“There are some really passionate volunteers we have,” said Ben Southworth, GleanKy development coordinator. “They really hate to see food go to waste.”
A few months ago, the call came from a grocery store offering 400 pounds of fresh blueberries.
“What do you do with that?” Southworth asked.
Luckily, it was a Monday, so he could send most of it to Embrace Church to hand out with its Monday community meal, he said, “but any other day it would have been a big undertaking trying to move them.”
In a few months, though, things might be different. Working in partnership with FoodChain, another Lexington nonprofit focused on feeding local residents, GleanKy will supply produce to a processing kitchen that FoodChain is building with a $450,000 two-year grant.
Once the kitchen is in place, one of its missions will be to smooth out the seasonal peaks and valleys of food availability.
For example, if another load of blueberries comes in, the kitchen can turn it into canned pie filling or frozen blueberries, Southworth said.
The grocery gleaning isn’t “super glamorous,” Southworth said, but it has enabled the organization to support feeding groups year-round rather than just on a seasonal basis.
“People need food even in the off-season,” he said.
He estimated that the organization has a hand in feeding 40,000 to 50,000 people annually, mostly in Fayette County, but also now in Madison, Scott and Franklin.
Next year, GleanKy hopes to expand its efforts into four more counties, GleanKy executive director Stephanie Wooten said.
“We’re looking at Bourbon, Woodford, Jessamine and Clark only because they are contiguous to where we already have a presence,” Wooten said. They partner with everything from food pantries to backpack programs and family resource centers, anyplace that people who need food turn for help. There sometimes is a waiting list but the gleaners are quick to find a way to respond.
“I think we really focused on filling gaps,” Wooten said. “What we’ve tried to do is remain flexible and sit one step back from the feeding network in Fayette County. ... We’ve been able to see both the sources of food and our end recipients of food, and address effectively food waste and hunger.”
They deal exclusively in fresh fruits and vegetables, but if a source has meat or bread or other items, GleanKy can point them toward a source who can use them.
Because they know how much is desperately needed. And becoming a permanent source of help has been both “wonderful and terrifying,” she said.
“We knew we had to find a way to provide this resource year-round if we could. We still focus on farms, on the traditional gleaning model but we needed something to fill gaps in winter and grocery stores are more reliable even during the growing season,” she said.
“In the growing season it’s about 50-50 as far as poundage, between local farms and grocers. In the off season, it’s almost exclusively groceries,” Wooten said. “As we strategically added a store like Lucky’s where we glean from every day, we were able to pull in at least 10 agencies into a year-round delivery. ... It’s really opened up our eyes to a whole new avenue of stores. In the food system, there is so much waste.”
And the FoodChain kitchen will help them spread things out so deliveries will be less lumpy. Instead of dumping 100 pounds of greens on a soup kitchen all on one day, they could do 20 pounds a day, a much more manageable amount for the kitchen’s volunteers.
Although there will always be anomalies: “Just the other day we got a call from someone in Clark County who said they way over-ordered mushrooms. They had pallets and pallets of mushrooms,” she said. “We said, ‘OK, we’ll start making calls.’ Hadn’t done mushrooms before. They were those white, button small mushrooms, ... all individually packaged. Our agencies were thrilled to get them.
“I think the Lighthouse and Catholic Action Center made soup.”
Want to help glean?
You can also contact GleanKy if you would like to donate produce or if your organization would like to receive donated produce.