The Tahoma Food System, which helps low-income people collect leftover fruits and vegetables after harvest, anticipates more than 500,000 pounds of produce will be taken from Puget Sound-area fields this year, up from 300,000 in 1998.
'We are definitely getting people calling up because of Y2K,' said Steven Garrett, who oversees the project. Garrett is an educator with Washington State University Cooperative Extension, which began the gleaning program in Pierce County in 1990.
Some people fear that errant computers, programmed to recognize only the last two numbers in a date, will misread the year 2000 for 1900, setting off a series of glitches in the distribution of goods and services.
More people than usual are also taking advantage of the Extension service's classes in canning food this year, Garrett said. Based on previous research, more than 90 percent of the anticipated 200 low-income gleaners will preserve their food to use later, he said.
The custom of leaving behind a part of the crop for the poor and transient is ancient and mentioned in the Book of Leviticus in the Bible. It was also the subject of a famous painting by the 19th-century artist Jean Fran?ois Millet.
In the Tacoma area, about 30 farmers open their fields to gleaners. They welcome the free labor if they are running late on harvesting corn, for example, and want to get a second crop in without having to pay a work crew. Other times an apple, bean or pumpkin crop may simply not meet the exacting standards of the retail industry.
Day-old bread from bakeries and salmon killed by Native American tribes just for the roe are also gleaned. This kind of operation is typically known as food recovery.
More than a quarter of all food in America, equal to roughly 130 pounds per person, goes to waste every year, according to the Department of Agriculture. This despite the fact that 26 million Americans make use of emergency feeding programs.
The largest gleaning operation in the country is run by the Society of St. Andrew in Big Island, Va. More than 17,600 volunteers collected 26 million pounds of produce in six states last year for food banks and soup kitchens, said Steven Waldmann, director of operations.
Unlike the Tahoma project, the society hasn't received any calls from clients with Y2K concerns. Waldmann attributed gleaning's rising popularity to increased demand from food charities that are beginning to understand the importance of supplementing canned and prepared foods with fresh produce.
What's unique about the Tahoma program is that the people who need it collect the food, said Garrett. Gleaners first gather enough to feed their families and then go back to salvage additional produce for area food banks. More than 50,000 people access the emergency food system in the county every month, Garrett said
The gleaning program, which operates with a small federal grant, skewers the stereotype that people who don't have enough to eat are hungry because they're lazy and won't work. 'You go out there and watch our gleaners and you know that isn't true,' Garrett said. Some of them are in their 70s. One woman canned 1,000 quarts of food not long ago, he added.
Contacts: Steven Garrett, extension educator, Washington State University Cooperative Extension, Tacoma, Wash., 253-798-3262. Steven Waldmann, director of operations, Society of St. Andrew, Big Island, Va., 800-333-4597.
Background:USDA web site. USDA gleaning information number: 800-GLEAN-IT.
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