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North Bay Spirit Award winner gleans food for residents, organizations in need

Love has kept her organization lean by going light on overhead. There is no office. The volunteers work from home and out of a donated van tricked out with tarps, buckets, pickers, ladders and now sanitizer.

Food waste amid need

Gleaning may be altruistic, but it’s also common sense. Some 30-40% of the nation’s food supply is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While not all that food is agricultural waste, tons of fresh edibles wind up in landfills and compost.

The county’s most recent hunger index, from before the pandemic, found at least one third of Sonoma County residents couldn’t afford three healthy meals a day.

“Our economy is taking a brutal hit,” Estes said, referring to the multiple disasters of wildfires and the pandemic. “I just feel so lucky I get to be the Robin Hood who gets to deliver food from farmers who have been so generous with their bounty to those who need it. … Melita created that.”

Love learned on the job how to properly pick. Windfalls, the fruit that drop on the ground, are left because they might contain harmful bacteria. Estes is experimenting with a second level of gleaning that grabs the rejects for farm animals.

Each apple is carefully inspected and handled because one bad apple really can spoil the bunch. Love holds for her gleaning customers the same high standards she holds for herself at the market.

“Our rule of thumb is ‘Would you eat it?’” said Love on a recent glean at Doug Lipton and Cindy Daniels’ HomeFarm in Dry Creek Valley. On this warm day under smoky skies, the group fanned out in masks to pick apples and other produce from the fields.

Love still occasionally dons her gloves and hat to glean. But her primary work is more strategic. She stepped down from running Farm to Pantry but still serves on the board, building up a network that includes the Sonoma County Food Recovery Coalition, the Sonoma County Food System Alliance and the Sonoma County Community Organizations Active in Disasters.

The pandemic has been hard on the local food chain, jolting crop farmers, restaurateurs and chefs. The gleaners have been out in force recouping what can’t be sold for a growing number of recipients that go well beyond food banks. School programs; Burbank Housing; Corazon Healdsburg, which supports the Latinx community, and the Alliance Medical Center are among the beneficiaries.

Lipton foresaw in March how food markets for farmers would be disrupted. He opted to plant crops specifically for Farm to Pantry this year, knowing they were competent to pick them when ripe.

“If it wasn’t for Farm to Pantry, it would be too much work to harvest it. They provide an amazing service,” said Lipton, an environmental scientist and the former owner of Healdburg SHED.

The Healdsburg Food Pantry receives a quarter of its fresh produce from Farm to Pantry. Many of the pantry’s clients are awestruck when they see what they’re getting, sometimes even taking pictures.

“My clients can’t afford to buy that stuff. So if they weren’t getting it from us, they just wouldn’t get it,” said Roger Dormire, head of the food pantry. “And when they do they go, ‘Oh my gosh! I get all this?’”

The volunteers are ready even with little notice. With farming, it’s all a matter of timing. Sometimes that works in the gleaners’ favor. Certain crops have to be picked or they will pass their prime, and sometimes farmers can’t harvest them in time. They call the gleaners, who come and take the goodies at their peak of perfection.

“Sometimes we get farmers who call and say, ‘We have to plow this tomorrow. And you have to glean by tomorrow if you want the vegetable or fruit,’” Love said. “One time a farmer told me, ‘You have to get it by 11 o’clock because the tractor is coming.’”

Sure enough, right at 11 a.m., a tractor started down the row where Love and her team were gleaning. “He started plowing because that was their schedule. And we had to hurry to finish pulling onions.” They did.

Unexpected turn

Love was not born to farm. She grew up in suburban Maryland outside Washington, D.C. After attending William and Mary College in Virginia, she became an elementary school teacher. That wasn’t the right fit. She moved to New York City, where she studied business and worked in banking until her first child, her son Cameron, was born.

In New York, Love may not have farmed, but she appreciated good food, Dimock recalled. The friends would frequently cook together or meet in Manhattan for a restaurant meal and pithy conversations about the economy and world events.

“She’s a person who in many ways was self-made. She had a bigger vision for what her life could become,” Dimock said. “She’s very aware of her privilege, but I think she feels this deep desire for the meaning that comes from doing something for your community.“

Love spent many years in San Francisco, where she focused on raising Cameron, 33, and Flannery, 30. She threw herself into volunteering with the advocacy group Children Now, which showed her how nonprofits work. She drew on that experience when she moved to Healdsburg in 2008 and founded Farm to Pantry.

“I’m so thankful this has had resonance with so many people in our community,” Love said. “The growers, those who come and glean with us and those who now support us. We couldn’t do it without every one of them. To say it takes a village is so trite but it’s so true.”

To contact Farm to Pantry visit farmtopantry.org. Email [email protected] or call 707-955-9898. Donations can be sent to P.O. Box 191, Healdsburg, 95448.

Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or [email protected] OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

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