Gleaners pick up, deliver fresh produce to Fairfax shelters

Boxes of produce are piled up in a gleaner’s car.
Photo by Jim Finkel

About 20 years ago, John Baer decided to make an impact in his community. So he got fellow members of Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax to volunteer weekly to bring fresh produce to local shelters.

The group calls itself Gleaners, a biblical reference — think Ruth gathering leftover corn in the fields for her mother-in-law Naomi — according to congregant Marc Berman.

“The farmers would farm their land and leave some amount of food for people that were poor to come and pick up the scraps, and that term is called gleaning, so [the group name] is sort of a play on that.”

Berman and his wife organize the group’s Sunday visits to the West End Farmers Market in Alexandria.

Typically, families meet there around 12:30 p.m., and wait for farmers to point out which vegetables gleaners can gather.

“They’re trying to make money, and so we’d like to see them succeed as much as possible,” Berman said. “So we hang back until they say they’re ready.”

Gleaner Barbara Finkel enjoys talking to farmers and asking for tips on cooking with unfamiliar produce like Swiss chard and bok choy. “I’ve learned an awful lot about vegetables that I never knew,” she said.

The Gleaners often share this farmers market with Bread for the City, with whom they have a friendly relationship. Individual farmers receive tax write-offs for donating the food, so volunteer families also hand out receipts.

“To some extent it’s a symbiotic relationship, because [the farmers] don’t have to haul all of this food that they can’t sell around. Obviously the people who we’re supporting get the benefit of fresh vegetables,” said Berman.

The crop varies each week, but volunteers often glean up to 300 pounds of fresh produce. “Most of the time, I can’t see out of my car when I’m driving,” Berman said.

Up to 15 families are volunteers this year, and three or four families glean each Sunday from May to October.

Berman enjoys chatting with other families, the farmers and the produce workers at Wegmans, who hold boxes for him when he comes by Sunday mornings. “The best thing is really the camaraderie that we’ve built up over the years between us, the other gleaners, and the farmers,” he said.

Finkel said Olam Tikvah has several efforts to feed the hungry in Fairfax, such as banding with a nearby church and mosque around Christmas.

“When you tell people there are hungry people just two miles away from where we live, they can’t believe it,” Finkel said, “but unfortunately it’s true.”

As for gleaning? Finkel points out it’s not as labor intensive as one might think, and it’s an important task.

“It doesn’t cost anyone any money, it’s just two hours on a Sunday, and you can make a difference to people.”

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