Gleaning to feed the poor outside Philadelphia

August 30, 2008 7:13:55 PM PDT
Compelled by conscience and a single sentence from the Bible, 30 women and children swarm a lush Chester County field and rip ripe ears of corn off graceful seven-foot stalks. Leviticus 23:22 is their guide: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien."

Following the Christian practice of gleaning - gathering crops for the poor - the earnest group from Meadowcroft Presbyterian Church in West Chester takes only an hour to collect around 1,000 ears of corn from the Westtown field, cultivated specifically for the gleaners by nearby Pete's Produce farm market.

High prices and lower-than-normal supplies in food banks have made this a particularly hungry summer for the poor and working poor in the Philadelphia region, experts say. Activities like gleaning help fill the gap.

The corn collected, it is loaded onto a truck that rides on winding roads past opulent homes. The truck eventually pulls into Cares Food Network, a food distribution center in one of the less tony precincts of West Chester.

Ninety minutes after the gleaning, Cares workers distribute bags of corn to clients, including Holly Johnson, 29, who makes $7.80 an hour at a pet store and struggles to feed her 4-year-old son.

"It's depressing to be hungry, actually - and embarrassing," Johnson says. "It's tough in West Chester."

She limits her meals to one a day so her son can eat three. "I feel an emptiness, a constant growling in my stomach. At work, everyone eats lunch, and I drink water or sometimes eat chips. You get fatigued."

On this night, the corn will fill her and her son. And by eating it, Johnson will complete an arc of charity that has moved from Pete's Produce, to the Meadowcroft harvesters, and to Johnson's kitchen table, which has seen precious little food this season.

"I challenge anyone making $7 an hour to be able to keep a roof over their head in Chester County," says Esther Brown, chief executive officer of Cares. "The people we see, if we did not give them food, might eat only every other day."

This summer, Cares has served an average of 10 new people a week who had never had to ask for food before, says Donna Hartman, coordinator of the Cares food cupboard.

"There's a new poverty out there," she adds. "We're seeing unusual things this summer."

Cares has 600 volunteers from about 20 churches and 15 community organizations helping in gleaning. Last year, volunteers picked nearly 38 tons of crops from 40 farms, says Larry Welsch, food and gleaning manager for Cares.

The Virginia-based Society of St. Andrew, the largest gleaning organization in the United States, says it knows of no other major field-gleaning efforts in eastern Pennsylvania or South Jersey. The society does some field gleaning in south-central Pennsylvania and in 21 other states.

Last year, "Share the Harvest," run by Philabundance, the hunger-relief organization, collected about 5,000 pounds of produce for the poor and elderly from community gardens in the region, a spokeswoman for Philabundance says.

Hartman credits local clergy for making gleaning important to churchgoers, especially young people.

"Churches are rallying the youth," she says.

Meadowcroft pastor Dan Kiehl says as hard times deepen, "more of our kids want to help the hungry. We talk to them about where the food is going and how it's helping people."

Increasingly, local children having birthday parties and bar and bat mitzvahs are eschewing gifts and asking that guests donate to Cares, Hartman says.

Lize Hugo tries to do her part. The 17-year-old from Glen Mills, who is at the gleaning, also takes part in a nationally run church program known as 30-Day Famine. Youngsters fast from Friday afternoon until Saturday evening to learn what hunger is like.

"I get a glimpse, but it's a small thing," says Hugo, who will be a senior at Garnet Valley High School. "At the end of the famine, we eat a big dinner, and it makes you almost not want to eat because hungry people don't get that."

Hugo's brother, Jaco, 15, also at the gleaning, says some of his peers have no idea how hard life can be.

He says his parents own rental apartments in Chester.

"I see how (people) have to live when I go there," he says. "People there can only go so far in life. But up here, the sky's the limit. And the people I know in my area have everything and don't realize it."

Concerned that her children will grow up ignorant of the poor, Lori Tyson, a Meadowcroft member who lives in Media, shows up at the gleaning with her three children younger than 12.

She also removes a small table from her SUV and places it in the cornfield. Tyson sets a metal box of markers on the table and hands out brown paper lunchbags.

The youngest gleaners gather around the table and draw on the bags, which Tyson and others will fill with lunch food they will buy for poor children. Cares distributes the decorated bags.

It's an odd scene in the Westtown field: preschoolers doing arts and crafts in the middle of a two-acre expanse while their mothers and siblings pick corn.

None of the gleaners will meet the people who get the food. And Cares clients such as Holly Johnson will never know their benefactors.

It is enough that the Meadowcroft people fulfill their commitment to help. And that Johnson and other working poor receive the corn.

"What we have is by God's grace," Tyson says. "It does not fully belong to us. We are to share with others."

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