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Gleaning bonds farmers and food shelves; more volunteers needed

Second Harvest Heartland plans gleaning events for farmers and organizes volunteers to help collect the produce to be distributed to food banks. Last year, more than 1,750 truckloads of produce was collected by volunteers. Tribune photo/

WILLMAR -- More than 200 million pounds of fresh produce is wasted in Minnesota alone each year. Second Harvest Heartland helps lower that number by collecting surplus produce and distributing it to food banks.

"At the end of the season, if farmers aren't going to sell the produce, they don't want to pay for the labor to pick it," said Tony Mans, director of food sourcing at Second Harvest.

Second Harvest plans gleaning events for the farmers and organizes volunteers to help collect the produce. They are seeking volunteers again for this year.

Last year, more than a thousand volunteers collected 1,750 truckloads or more than 7 million pounds of fresh produce.

"At the time of the event, we communicate with the local food shelf, and they can come pick it up," said Kaia Arthur, volunteer program developer at Second Harvest.

"Whatever the food shelf doesn't want, we bring back to Second Harvest. Then, other food shelves can buy it from us at a very low price like 14 cents per pound."

Second Harvest works with food shelves in more than 60 counties throughout west central Minnesota and northeast Wisconsin.

It's about building strong relationships between the farmers and the food shelves, said Christie Kurth, executive director of the Willmar Area Food Shelf.

"Last year, we received 30,000 pounds of produce from local farmers and gardeners," she said.

For less fortunate food shelves, Second Harvest can help provide the produce.

"We try to keep some of (the produce) in the area, but we also want to all work together," Arthur said. "If someone is donating a ton of sweet corn or apples, that's great. But, you still need a variety."

Second Harvest collects apples, watermelon, sweet corn and other fresh produce.

"It's a good way for people, who aren't able to afford it, to get fruit and healthy food into their hands," said Kelly Ehrenberg, board representative of the Renville County Food Shelf.

Gleaning events help in two ways: The recipients, who are often lacking in produce, receive the nutrients they need and volunteers feel good for helping their neighbors.

Ralph Pennie of Afton has been volunteering with Second Harvest for three or four years. He said volunteering is satisfying because you help fulfill a basic need of life.

"And it's enjoyable," he said. "It gets you outside. The apple orchards are beautiful places to be and just enjoy nature."

Because the events often occur on short notice when it's convenient for the farmers, volunteers need to be signed up online in advance. The volunteers are contacted when an event is planned and whoever can make it shows up.

"It can be anywhere from 20 to 100 (volunteers) on a given location, depending on what the project is," Mans said.

Second Harvest provides volunteers with any needed training, as well as boxes to pack the produce. The organization encourages families to bring their children and friends to make it a fun event.

For more information volunteering or to sign up as a volunteer, visit