fruit gleaning (file photo)

USU Gleaning Team member Mikenna DeBruin picks apples off a tree in Wellsville in September 2019.

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It’s about halfway through harvest season in Cache County, and the Utah State University Gleaning Team is back in its second year to bridge the gap between local gardeners and food pantries’ shortages.

“(We gather) excess fruit and vegetables, produce generally from private tree or landowners, and using volunteers give that to community members in need,” said Charles Miller, the program’s new coordinator.

Even with the pandemic, Miller said the program is growing consistently. In 2019, the team gleaned about 15,000 pounds of fruit and produce, and the 2020 total to date is at 2,794 pounds.

“We’re about 200 pounds ahead of where we were last year,” Miller said. “Apple season will also, in terms of poundage, change things a lot.”

Event cancellations and food shortages early in the pandemic led to an increased fervor in local gardening efforts — something Ronette Anderson, co-owner of Anderson Seed and Garden, has seen first-hand since March.

“It’s been everything gardening,” she said. “So, fruit trees, vegetables, it’s been overwhelmingly greater amounts than normal this year.”

Anderson said most of her store’s customers had planned on canning the majority of their produce, especially after seeing the way people hoarded toilet paper and food in March, so she wasn’t sure how many people would have excess to donate.

But Miller said most gardeners and landowners have already harvested their fill by the time the gleaning team comes, lending to higher donations to the Cache Community Food Pantry and the Student Nutrition Access Center on the USU campus.

“The produce, I think, is a really unique thing to our pantry, because I don’t think like a lot of pantries get that,” said SNAC summer coordinator Alicia Baxter. “And our patrons really appreciate fresh produce.”

Matt Whitaker, the director of the Cache Community Food Pantry, agreed, and said the service has been especially helpful since the pandemic meant cancelled food drives and a sharp decrease in donations from grocery stores.

“It’s getting better,” he said. “We’re not back to pre-pandemic levels of donations from them, but at least we’re climbing a little bit.”

Whitaker said though food donations have slowed, he’s grateful for the “outpouring of support” in monetary donations from the community and the Farmers Feeding Utah state program.

But the pantry is also still seeing an increase in applicants, and he expects the number to continue to climb since the pandemic bonus for unemployment benefits expired.

Similarly, the number of students who will need assistance is also expected to rise as classes resume, Baxter said. Though SNAC has helped an average of 90 clients a week throughout the summer, that number is expected to quadruple once students return to campus.

“With COVID, there’s maybe more of a need for people to have food,” she said. “But then there’s also the flip side where there might not be as many people that come on campus and more people doing online ... So, there’s a possibility that it might not be as busy as we think, but we’re hoping that people will be able to use those resources.”

Having fresh fruit and vegetable options for the pantries is crucial to ensuring clients are getting a diverse diet, according to Miller.

“You know, fruit is so expensive, and ... the need is even greater this year with a lot of people losing their jobs because of COVID,” he said. “If they’re having to make financial decisions, fruit is probably not the smartest one. So trying to get them at least a somewhat-balanced diet is important to us, and then also reducing food waste.”

Baxter said SNAC’s AmeriCorps food partner, the USU Community Kitchen, has helped take advantage of the increased yield, using gleaned apricots to make “a bunch of really good apricot jam.”

The program is a collaboration of the USU Center for Community Engagement, USU Val R. Christensen Service Center, USU Extension, the Food Recovery Network at USU and the Student Sustainability Office, and is expected to continue through October — or until the first hard-freeze.

Miller said he hopes to host fall orchard-picking dates or family nights as additional offerings with the program.

Information on volunteering or ways to register orchards or gardens for gleaning is available at the USU Gleaning Team Facebook page.

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