A gunmetal gray cloud cover hangs low over the Salinas Valley, obscuring the rugged Santa Lucia Highlands and shading a crowd of workers wearing hairnets and rubber gloves as they bend in a field, plunging knives into the stems of red romaine lettuce, pulling off tattered leaves and tossing tidy heads into crates. The awkward techniques and leisurely pace make it clear: this isn’t an ordinary harvest crew. On this May Saturday morning, 60 volunteers are joining a bi-monthly gleaning event organized by Ag Against Hunger to supply fresh produce to food banks in the tri-county area and beyond.
Today, the glean team is harvesting lettuce from a field that was maintained all the way to maturity–nine weeks–and, now that prices have dropped, is no longer economically viable to harvest. Without Ag Against Hunger, the tilling, planting, pesticide spraying and watering which has nurtured this field since March would be wasted, along with a perfectly good crop of lettuce. Some Saturday mornings, volunteers engage in true gleaning: the age-old process of gathering produce after the official harvest has been completed and part of the crop is left behind due to size or cosmetic issues.
I arrived at 9 AM at the Ag Against Hunger warehouse in Salinas to find a buzzing crowd of all ages passing around a clipboard and filling out waivers. The parking lot proclaimed a broad demographic: a shiny Cadillac Esplanade, a dusty Jeep Cherokee covered with progressive stickers, a Prius, pick-ups, mini-vans and station wagons. Families with small children mingled with seniors. College kids swigged coffee from commuter mugs. Teenagers horsed around. After a quick orientation with Gleaning and Volunteer Coordinator Ananda Jimenez, and an invitation to find carpool companions, we piled into vehicles and followed a white 18-wheeler about 10 miles south on Highway 101.
Thanks to this 19-year-old organization, by noon our brief agricultural labors will be over and we will save 4200 pounds of lettuce from being tilled under. Crops rescued from the plow by volunteers make up only about 1% of the total fresh produce that Ag Against Hunger distributes each year. The balance is produce already harvested and processed that becomes unsalable due to price fluctuations. Ag Against Hunger’s network of about 50 growers and shippers are grateful for the opportunity to donate this surplus to food banks and human services agencies and enjoy the accompanying tax benefits.
Visit Gleaning Stories to hear audio recordings of gleaners (including me!). Their mission is to collect and broadcast the stories of gleaners in the Salinas Valley.