Faith Feeds wants every day to be as plentiful as Thanksgiving

Lexmark volunteers Alan Pullins, left, Kweku Korsah, center, and Billy Jones gleaned apples at the Reed Valley Orchard near Paris. The fruit is then taken to groups that distribute it to the needy. "It's not hard, and it's fun," said Mary Powell of Faith Feeds.
Lexmark volunteers Alan Pullins, left, Kweku Korsah, center, and Billy Jones gleaned apples at the Reed Valley Orchard near Paris. The fruit is then taken to groups that distribute it to the needy. "It's not hard, and it's fun," said Mary Powell of Faith Feeds. Herald-Leader

You know that wonderful feeling you get after eating everything in the world at Thanksgiving? What's that called? Not being hungry. Faith Feeds would like more people to feel that way every day of the year.

The group says the amazing thing is that it turns out not only to be possible but easy, if you're willing to do a little work, like bending at the waist or lifting a box into a truck.

That's about as hard as it gets, said Mary Powell, one of Faith Feeds' founders.

"It's just turned out to be one of those rare experiences in life that has no downside," she said.

Three years ago, the former archaeologist and some friends asked the Lexington Farmers Market whether vendors would be interested in having someone pick up and take away unwanted but perfectly edible produce.

"The response was 100 percent yes," Powell said.

They also asked whether Reed Valley Orchard outside Paris would allow people to come by to pick up windfall fruit. Again, a resounding yes.

"It seemed a shame to let apples go to waste on the ground," Powell said.

So in 2010, Powell, who has a pickup truck, and a few fellow retirees ("three old women," she said) got some boxes and rakes and went at it.

"Low-tech all the way," she said. She and a couple of her fellow volunteers would spend an hour or two at the orchard, fill her truck with boxes of apples and pears, and head to the Hope Center or God's Pantry, two organizations that help the hungry. Each box can feed 20 to 30 people.

"It's not hard, and it's fun," she said. "People think, 'I'm only one person. I can't make a difference.' I am a 67-year-old woman with a pickup. I have personally transported 10,000 pounds of food in two years. ... One person can make a big difference."

VIDEO: More about how Faith Feeds provides fresh fruit, vegetables, more to homeless shelters, families and others. Video by Janet Patton.

The gleaning movement

Gleaning, the term for what Powell and her friends are doing, is becoming a national phenomenon, with groups all across the country connecting people who grow fruits and vegetables with people who can pick them up, and then closing the circle with people who can get the food to the hungry.

A few years ago, Powell said she, John Walker, Erica Horn, Jennifer Erena and others were thinking a lot about how they could help, and what would be most effective.

"The problem with hunger is not that there is not enough food. It's getting the food to the people who need it," Powell said. "Soup kitchens and shelters can get food, but it's generally processed. The real shortfall is fresh. That's our niche. ... We decided that's what we would do. And it's worked out beyond our wildest dreams."

In three years, Lexington's Faith Feeds has "rescued" about 160,000 pounds of mostly fresh fruits and vegetables.

About 66,000 pounds of it has gone to God's Pantry, the largest food bank in the region with 211,000 mouths in 50 counties to feed. The rest often goes to local homeless shelters and church kitchens that cook for those in need.

Some trickles out to neighborhoods where people gather weekly to get the kind of fresh produce that often gets squeezed off a limited-income shopping list.

More and more people are slipping into that last category.

"Since 2008, we've seen significant increases in demand each year," said Marian Guinn, CEO of God's Pantry Food Bank. To fill the growing need, they turned increasingly to fresh produce, which in fiscal year 2012 made up about a third of the 22.8 million pounds of food distributed.

The recipients love it and want more.

"Research by a state association noted that pantry clients in our area are very grateful for this fresh food, would like to see more, and are being exposed to fresh foods they wouldn't have tried on their own," Guinn said.

Many limited-income people consider fresh fruits and vegetables to be too expensive, and they just don't see themselves as "worthy" of that kind of food, she said.

"Our client population doesn't see it as a food that's really accessible to them. Yet we all recognize that fresh food is really critical to establishing a healthy diet. And fresh foods tend to be the healthiest and most nutritious to consume," Guinn said. "We think Faith Feeds is a fabulous organization, and they embody a spirit of volunteerism and a commitment to healthy foods and local foods that we think is really important and valuable."

Guinn said that she hopes the economy continues to improve and fewer Kentuckians have to turn to food banks to eat.

"But until that happens, God's Pantry is here to help," Guinn said.

Farmers like it, too

The gleaners start in the spring, with the first of the farmers' markets in the area. They put out empty boxes, and farmers fill them with whatever they don't sell and don't want to take back home at the end of the day.

Jeff Dabbelt, executive director of the Lexington Farmers Market, said the work has literally been a weight off the farmers' shoulders.

"It's a huge service," Dabbelt said. "They provide a cleanup service, and they get food to folks who need the food now."

It's tons of food that doesn't have to be driven back home (resulting in a waste of gas) just to be composted (which can be depressing with perfectly edible food), Dabbelt said.

One of the best by-products: It makes people feel good.

That's helpful because people need a reason to get out in the heat, cold and rain to pick up food they won't be eating themselves.

Walker, a University of Kentucky biology professor, has been a passionate gardener forever and has taught "edible garden" courses to many.

One of his caveats, said Jennifer Erena, a nurse who took one of his gardening classes, is that you always have extra. "'Don't let it go to waste; give it.' He was all big into gleaning."

But the grass-roots efforts to get this going organically, so to speak, just weren't getting off the ground very well.

"We thought maybe we should make something more organized," Erena said. As luck would have it, the garden where Walker was teaching people not to waste is at Beaumont Presbyterian Church, which Horn attends.

Horn, a certified public accountant and attorney who sits on many boards, doesn't garden. "But she's a great organizer," Erena said.

Now head of the board, Horn got the group organized and legally set up to take donations of all sorts: food, money and time.

Volunteers from Lexmark International and other businesses and schoolchildren began signing up to pick up produce or spend a day gleaning apples and pumpkins at Reed Valley. In all, Faith Feeds picks up at about 10 locations each week, including Whole Foods Market and the Good Foods Market and Cafe, and takes food to about 20 emergency food agencies.

One Sunday in September, Horn said, someone gave them 1,100 pounds of corn. Another time, it was loaves of homemade bread — truckloads of it, Horn said. The shelter workers had it out of her trunk almost before she got out of the car.

"It's a win for the farmers. The guy who had the corn said, 'I don't have to figure out what to do with it.' The volunteer feels good, and the people who get the food are excited," she said. "It's a little bit of work, but it's an amazing feeling."

Now churches and groups with kitchens make applesauce, can tomatoes and salsa, and freeze ready-made pumpkin pie filling.

"It turned into ... wow," Erena said.

The next step

Faith Feeds celebrated its success this year with a Gleaners Gala that brought together farmers, gleaners, food agency workers and food recipients.

"We're really working hard to help people who are starving," Walker said. "But really, it's a funny thing. People are happy when they are around food."

Walker is modest about his contribution to fight hunger. ("I provided the initial spark, but everybody else does the work.") But he is serious about finding ways to do more.

"Every year we've realized there's more to do," Walker said. "It seems hit-or-miss, but the need is so great — 30 percent of people in Kentucky are either on food stamps or have made at least one trip to a food bank. It's the young, the old, the poorest, the most vulnerable who are cast aside."

The food is out there, he said, and often what's missing is the will to do something with it.

"Somebody's got to care," Walker said. "We need more empathy and compassion in this society on everybody's account."