UNION—The community organization Knox County Gleaners is getting closer to its goal of building a community kitchen in Union.
Nancy Wood, SNAP Ed Nutrition Educator for Knox County, and Lorain Francis, the former Program Director of AmeriCorps Seniors, founded the initiative that very few people have heard about.
What is Gleaning?
“ ‘Gleaners’ is a Biblical term,” said Wood. “In the Book of Ruth, it states that landowners had to leave the perimeter of their farmed fields unharvested, so that the poor, widows, and orphans, could come and glean what produce had been left behind.”
It’s called “the best kept secret in Knox County,” said Wood, noting that the organization is often misunderstood because many people mistake the word “gleaners” for “cleaners.”
The dictionary defines gleaning as “gathering leftover grain or other produce after a harvest.”
The women started the all-volunteer initiative in 2019 to use surplus food from farmers, gardeners, and orchard owners to benefit households that were struggling to make ends meet and buy enough food for their families.
The food collected then goes to food pantries, soup kitchens, libraries, senior homes, and other community hubs. Beyond helping the surrounding community, KC Gleaners volunteers also do a service for area farmers, alleviating a labor shortage by planting, weeding, and harvesting, packing and washing.
Their efforts also serve to reduce food waste in farms, gardens, and orchards, providing a cyclical effect.
“We just finished our fourth harvest this year and over the last four years, we’ve grown,” she said. “We went from collecting 2,500 pounds to 20,000 pounds of gleaned food and what we recognized over the last couple of years is that sometimes we’ve collected too much! For example, if we have a farmer come to us and tell us he’s got 600 pounds of tomatoes you can come and get, we then scratch our heads and say ‘where are we going to distribute 600 pounds of tomatoes?”
Wood, who teaches cooking and nutrition classes in schools, food pantries, soup kitchens, and senior residences, knew of a logical solution: Build a community kitchen, which would give the organization the ability to process and provide fresh gleaned foods and prepare “ready to heat and eat” meals.
“A kitchen would vastly help us to repurpose this food,” she explained. “With 600 pounds of tomatoes, for example, we could break it down, make tomato soup freeze batches, and so on. That’s the first purpose of the kitchen. The second purpose would be to teach cooking classes to the community, the idea being we can show you five different ways to use an ingredient, such as lentils, that you’ve never cooked before that will be inexpensive, tasty, and nutritious.”
Wood said the way inflation and the high cost of groceries have been impacting Midcoast family budgets, their entire philosophy is to provide food so that it’s one fewer need that someone has to pay out of pocket for.
“Spend the money you would have spent on food to put gas in your car, fill up your oil tank, or buy your medication,” she said.
The kitchen they’re currently fundraising and building out is in the same building as the Come Spring Food Pantry and while the donations they’ve garnered so far have got them further ahead with all of the commercial kitchen equipment they need, the building itself has some serious infrastructure issues, such as plumbing and electrical, that need to be fixed first, as there currently is no running water in the part of the building where the kitchen will be constructed.
Café Miranda, in Rockland, and which closed permanently in 2022, temporarily re-opened in early December for one weekend, serving pizzas as a fundraiser for the Knox County Gleaners. “ It was fabulous for [Café Miranda owner] Kerry Alterio to do that for us and it gave us quite a bit of exposure.”
The effort, along with a New Year’s Eve raffle, raised more than $7,500 for the community kitchen. To stay in touch with the progress of the kitchen visit: Knox County Gleaners
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org