It started in a field of corn on a farm near Concord. It ended with a hungry family in Charlotte.
In between, a chain of volunteers gave time, sweat and gasoline to pick the corn, drive it where it was needed and hand it out.
“It’s the best job ever,” says Jean Siers, the Charlotte coordinator for the Gleaning Network, which matches volunteers with farms that have more food than they can pick. “At the end of the day, you know somebody ate something healthy and good because you picked up the phone.”
The Gleaning Network is one of a half-dozen groups in the Charlotte area that make up the system of food banks, emergency pantries and community gardens. It is also one of the few that focuses exclusively on fresh fruits and vegetables. Studies by the USDA have found that 17 percent of North Carolina households were in danger of not having enough nutritious food in 2012.
“My grandma used to say a full belly don’t know what fed it,” says Dondhi Burrell, who helps run an emergency pantry at Double Oaks Masonic Outreach Center off Statesville Avenue.
A few weeks ago, though, some of those bellies got fresh corn.
Children of the corn
It was a few minutes after 8 a.m. on a Tuesday at Barbee Farms, 70 acres near Interstate 85, and Siers was waiting for a herd of kids.
Siers, the wife of Observer editorial cartoonist Kevin Siers, was dressed for a typical day: sunglasses, well-used straw hat, pink polka-dot mud boots and a T-shirt with a quote from Leviticus: “Leave the gleaning for the poor and the aliens in your land.”
The Gleaning Network runs on a simple idea: No field is ever completely empty. In a country where food waste is estimated at 70 billion pounds a year, there’s a lot of food left when the fields are harvested. Maybe it wasn’t ripe enough, pretty enough or a uniform size.
While the network also gathers unsold food from warehouses and farmers markets all year, field gleanings happen in summer and fall, usually once or twice a week. They never know what they’ll pick – sweet potatoes, watermelons, tomatoes, corn.
Before fields are plowed under, many farms call the Gleaning Network, which finds volunteers to go clear them, an average of 1,500 volunteers a year in the Charlotte area.
“It’s all ages, white and black,” Siers says. “Everybody is in it together.”
On this day, her volunteers included around 30 adolescents and youth leaders from Assurance United Methodist in Huntersville and Philadelphia United Methodist in Fort Mill, S.C.
By 8:15, the kids had arrived, gotten a lecture and a prayer, and climbed on an open flat-bed farm truck. Legs dangling off the sides, they rode into the quilt of green fields, bumping past irrigation ponds, bee hives and compost piles. “For a lot of kids, it’s their first time on a farm, the first time they’ve picked anything,” Siers says.
Farm helper Charlie Barbee stopped the truck by a 1-acre patch. In summer, the farm plants corn every seven to 10 days, so a different section ripens every week.
Barbee handed out threadbare yellow sacks and gave the kids their orders: Work with a partner, then put the filled sacks along the edge, so the trucks can load up.
“I see some good, stout young’uns,” Barbee hollers. “Fill those sacks up. They’s a lot of (corn) in here. It don’t look like it.”
He’s right: The field is like a “Where’s Waldo?” game with corn stalks. It seems picked over at first. Then you spot a fat, ripe ear. And another. Pretty soon, they’re everywhere you look. The kids rub their fingers over the husks, feeling for ears with filled-out kernels.
It takes just under an hour to cover the field.
Eric Stegall is a regular volunteer who works in a steel mill at night and comes out a couple of mornings a week. He walks along with a clipboard, doing the math for Siers’ records: Two pickup trucks are filled with 3,100 pounds of corn.
“They call it gleaning, but a lot of the time, we’re getting first-quality stuff,” he says. “Farmers in this area are generous.”
It’s a good thing they are. This is the first year since the state ended a tax credit farms used to get for gleaned food. So far, Siers says, farms haven’t stopped calling them.
“Farmers don’t raise things to throw them away,” she says.
Glad to get it
After dropping four sacks at Siers’ car so she can distribute them herself, volunteer Alfreto Alexander eased her blue pickup onto I-85 just after 9:30 a.m. It was loaded: 1,500 pounds of corn in the back, four adults in the cab. Alexander has been driving for the Gleaning Network for 20 years.
While many nonprofits require filling out applications for help, the Gleaning Network operates a little differently. The idea is to get fresh food that would have been wasted out into the community through a network of charities and community groups.
“A lot of people fall through the cracks, because of pride or inability to fill out the paperwork,” Siers says. “Our drivers take the food to people who are active in their community or food pantries that know who needs the food.”
Siers checks later to make sure the food got there, and she fills out reports tracking deliveries. But she also relies on the volunteer drivers to know their neighborhoods. Most have been with the network for 10 or 15 years. When they get requests for food, Siers usually works with people to match them up with groups that can help, to spread it as widely as possible.
Leaving Barbee Farms, Alfreto Alexander headed first to Statesville Avenue and the outreach center in the old Double Oaks Elementary.
After backing her truck right up the sidewalk to the front door, she waited while volunteer George Morris and center administrator Dondhi Burrell loaded 10 sacks of corn onto hand trucks.
Inside the former school, tables were already lined with day-old bread and donated pastries for the community center’s Saturday food pantry that serves 40 families a week. The corn would be stored in a walk-in refrigerator until then.
The rest went to Alexander’s home, off Shamrock Drive. As she pulled up, she was texting people at several churches and the Matthews Help Center to pick it up.
“It can go farther that way, rather than three and a half dollars a gallon for gas,” she says. “I try to get as many people in it as I can.”
Next stop: Huntersville
The second load of corn went to Huntersville in Sylvester Brown’s battered 1996 Ford 150 with the cracked windshield.
First, he stopped at Angels & Sparrows Soup Kitchen and left four sacks with volunteer cook Muriel Parker. After they finished serving lunch, Parker and her volunteers would shuck the corn and use it the next day.
He dropped two sacks next door, at New Friendship Presbyterian Church, for its senior citizens’ ministry.
He took some to Roberto Chavez, a mechanic and former pastor he calls “Rev,” to pass out to Latino families in his neighborhood. He dropped some by the door of a woman who gets it to people who are short of food in her church and some to a Loaves & Fishes pantry.
First, though, he drove slowly through the back streets of Huntersville to a low-income neighborhood on the other side of the railroad tracks.
Brown grew up around here and used to play in the yard of Emma Sloan, 95, called “Ma Emma” in the neighborhood. Now he makes sure fresh food gets to her house, where she passes it out to neighbors.
Food volunteers call these “gatekeepers,” often older women in low-income neighborhoods who know who needs help.
Does that system let people take advantage? Not often, say many people who work regularly with food charities.
“It’s food,” says Beverly Howard, the director of Loaves & Fishes. “It’s not gold bullion, it’s not filet mignon. What we try to focus on is the 99 percent of the people we deal with who need it and use it for the right purpose.”
Sloan walks across her yard slowly, leaning on a broom for a cane, while Brown hefts three sacks of corn to her back door. She’ll cook a little herself and can some for winter.
“I’m one of these old people that know how to do that,” she says. “Yeah, Brother Brown, I don’t know what we’d do without him.”
Last year, Brown made 25 trips for the Gleaning Network, hauling 42,000 pounds of food around Mooresville and Huntersville.
How much corn did he take for himself? None, he says. He had a job for 47 years as a traffic manager at a steel plant.
“The good Lord blesses me to have a roof and something to spend. No, I buy it myself.”
Making it stretch
On Tuesday afternoon, Siers dropped her last sack of corn on Emerywood Drive in Charlotte, at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church for the weekly Wednesday dinner.
When school is closed and children don’t get free breakfasts and lunches, a lot of families around Archdale Drive struggle. So on Wednesday nights in the summer, Pat Smathers leads a free community dinner and food pantry. Tonight, the bags of groceries they’ll give out will include four ears of corn.
Sharon Richardson, 60, has six to feed in her household. “Sometimes more than that, with the grandkids,” she says. Her husband is a mechanic who just got work after 13 years. Richardson left her own job before she qualified for retirement, so she could take care of the grandmother who raised her.
How will four ears of corn stretch to feed six or more?
“Usually we make soup,” she says. “We’ve got a big family, so we pool it.” It’s important to her, she says, for her family to eat together.
Siers marvels at how far food can reach into the community.
“For how many people are hungry, and how little food we actually get into the neighborhoods, that food is going to people who are making the best use of it they can,” she says.
“It’s a personal ministry.”