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After the harvest, farmers let their crops rot. These volunteers come to the rescue

A woman with white hair and blue and white striped top leans into a tomato vine to pick tomatoes
Kerry Sheridan
"I'm originally a farm girl, anyway," said Pat Ryan, a volunteer with Transition Sarasota. "And it's a nice feeling to think that maybe you're helping someone that needs help."

Gleaning involves picking perfectly good fruits and vegetables from farmers' fields after the harvest, so they can be donated to food banks.

On a cool, sunny December morning at a farm in Myakka City, Pat Ryan picked through the wilting tomato vines.

"You look for basically the perfect ones," she said, peering past the green tomatoes, and twisting off the red ones. Any that had splits in the skin or black spots, she dropped to the ground.

She caressed the dust off the shiny, ripe tomatoes, and deposited them carefully into a cardboard box at her feet.

A box of red ripe tomatoes
Kerry Sheridan
A box is filled with red tomatoes, to be taken to the food bank

"Here's a gorgeous one," she said, admiringly. "Nice and big. That's a country tomato sandwich."

Ryan and a dozen other volunteers spent their Tuesday morning picking these tomatoes, as part of an effort led by the nonprofit organization, Transition Sarasota.

A large truck from All Faiths Food Bank waited on the dirt path nearby, ready to transport these tomatoes to town.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, more than a third of the food produced in the United States goes to waste, some 80 million tons per year.

Meanwhile, one in five Floridians doesn't get enough food to eat.

"We're rescuing fruit and veggies that would normally go to waste. And instead we're feeding people with that. So we're the missing link," said Joyce Norris, executive director of Transition Sarasota.

Norris said farmers reach out to her group when they have a surplus.

"There's a lot left in the field, it's kind of the end of the crop, they don't want to sell any more of these," she said.

"And so rather than go to waste, the generous farmer has allowed us to come on and harvest the excess," said Norris.

Woman smiling in cowboy hat holds box of tomatoes
Kerry Sheridan
Laura Daily says she plans to bring some extra tomatoes to her mother-in-law when she has finished volunteering in the field.

Allowing them to rot "would produce methane gas, which is an environmental pollutant," Norris said. By harvesting them, the volunteers are "stopping food waste at the source, and instead they are going on the plate of somebody that's hungry."

Sometimes, Transition Sarasota volunteers pick what's left after the U-pick blueberry season. They'll also pick backyard mangos that owners don't want, and many other kinds of crops.

Volunteer Cindy Polzer said she has gleaned watermelon before.

"It's fun. It gets you outside. And there are benefits. You get to take a little bit home with you," said Polzer.

Woman in orange sweathshort stands among tomato rows
Kerry Sheridan
Cindy Polzer is part of the team of volunteers with Transition Sarasota

"Tomatoes love to grow. Life wants to live," laughed volunteer Laura Daily, as she filled her cardboard box with red, unblemished tomatoes.

"I love growing my own food. I love the idea of sustainability, and not wasting. Helping the community. And I get to meet like-minded people," Daily said.

According to Forrest White, West Central Florida area gleaning coordinator for the Society of St. Andrew, the service these volunteers provide is especially needed today.

"There's no such thing as affordable housing anymore. And the cost of everything is going up," said White.

A man picks tomatoes in a field, some are seen rotting on the dirt ground
Kerry Sheridan
In gleaning, tomatoes that are split or rotting are left on the ground.

"This is a crisis across many different socio-economic levels in this country. So it's just a real blessing to get out and do this and just know that the food is getting on the table for people who otherwise might not have access to this kind of beautiful fresh produce."

More volunteers are needed in gleaning efforts in Sarasota, Polk, Hillsborough, Manatee and Hardee counties.

"It's just such great work," said White. "I mean, anybody can come out and really make a difference by just giving a few hours of their day."

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.