Nonprofit's fruit gleaning a sharing success

Dozens of red-stained fingertips moved quickly to and fro among the dark green leaves in Shirley Thompson's backyard Thursday morning, removing ripe fruit soon to be given away at a Tri-Cities food bank.

About 20 volunteers from Fields of Grace gathered about 350 pounds of cherries during the two-hour picking session, with every intent to fill the stomach of a stranger and to fulfill a biblical principle about sharing abundance who those who have none.

Alissa Watkins of the nonprofit group Fields of Grace said nearly 800 volunteers from about 24 churches in the Tri-Cities provide the hands for gleaning that deliver tons of fresh produce each year to area food banks.

Begun in 2006 as a ministry of the Westside Church in Richland, in partnership with farmers and Second Harvest, Fields of Grace has grown to be a major food supplier to people in need, said Watkins, program coordinator.

Central United Protestant Church and Cathedral of Joy, both in Richland, since have become major supporters.

A passage from the Bible, Leviticus 19:9-10, inspired the gleaners:

"When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien."

Thompson's large cherry trees on 41st Place in Kennewick were ripe to harvest Thursday. Rather than let the crop waste or depend on friends and family to gather the fruit, Thompson decided to call Fields of Grace.

It was a good call, but only because she planned ahead and Fields of Grace was ready.

Picking residential properties usually doesn't work that well, said Watkins, who noted that the best gleaning is done on commercial properties where the growers are set up for gleaners.

Crops identified for gleaning must not be past prime and have to satisfy requirements involving chemical applications.

"The integrity of the fruit is important. We don't want to harvest a crop that can't be used," Watkins said. Unfortunately, many residential properties can't provide fruit that meets the standards.

A successful gleaning program requires that everyone is happy with the results: the volunteer pickers, the growers and the people who will receive and eat the gleanings.

"Our job is to get as much food as possible so farmers will call back next year. Also, we can risk wearing out our people, many of whom are older volunteers," said Rob Koenig of Pasco, whose job is to select and schedule crop sites for gleaning.

Typically, commercial grower gleanings are done Saturday mornings, Watkins said. It is not unusual for some growers to set aside a certain amount to be donated. And growers can receive a tax-deductible receipt because Fields of Grace is a registered nonprofit agency with the IRS.

Gleaning is a team effort that can involve children and adults, but there also is etiquette training, Watkins said.

The next training session will be at 7 p.m. July 10, at Westside Church, 615 Wright Ave., Richland.

Watkins said Fields of Grace also wants public support to help win a new Toyota pickup through Toyota's 100 Cars for Good Program, with voting to occur Tuesday via Facebook.

The process involves signing onto Facebook and going to www.facebook.com/Toyota. Voting is allowed Tuesday until 9 p.m. by selecting Fields of Grace as one of the four organizations eligible that day for a new vehicle.

A new truck would help bring in about 32,000 pounds of additional fresh produce each year, or the equivalent of about 80,000 servings, Watkins said.

Since 2006, Fields of Grace has delivered about 400,000 pounds of produce, Watkins said.

Much of the Fields of Grace produce goes to St. Vincent de Paul, or the three Tri-City Food Banks, located in Richland, Kennewick and Benton City. Some also goes to Golden Age in Pasco.