‘Gleaning with Meaning’ helps the hungry

BROCKPORT — A group of about 25 people picked more than 10,000 pounds of butternut squash under a bright autumnal sky during several hours of working the fields at Martin Farms.

These were not your typical farmworkers, however. They were employees of Rochester Gas & Electric who along with friends and family spent the morning of Oct. 23 taking part in "Gleaning with Meaning," a first-year Foodlink program where volunteers harvested Martin Farms’ leftover squash for donation to the organization.

The Foodlink project was one of several that RG&E employees took part in that day as part of annual community-service efforts organized by Iberdrola USA, RG&E’s parent company. The Spain-based company organizes an annual volunteer day but this is the first time that local employees participated, said Dick Marion, RG&E spokesman. Other upstate New York and New England companies that Iberdrola purchased two years ago from Energy East also served their communities for the International Volunteer Day, he added.

In Rochester, volunteers also donated their skills to the Cerebral Palsy Association and Volunteers of America.

"It makes you thankful for all that you have," Marion said of his experience at Martin Farms. "It’s like what you’ve been told as a kid: It’s better to give than to receive."

Although for years farms have donated their leftover crops through the Gleaning with Meaning program, Foodlink reached out to Martin Farms for the first time this year, said Jeanette Batiste, Foodlink’s chief operating officer. The 13,000 pounds of squash that the volunteers picked will be distributed to agencies and food pantries throughout the organization’s 10-county network.

"It is part of our effort to increase the distribution of fresh produce throughout our network," Batiste state in an e-mail.

When they first arrived at the farm, the RG&E group was given instructions on how to glean from the rows of plants that they would be working as well as guidelines on which squash to pick in terms of appearance and size, Marion explained.

"The people of Martin Farms were very patient with us first-timer farmers," added Dave Kozlowski, a consumer and industrial gas service technician with RG&E.

The fields at the 3,000-acre farm are so expansive that the group could only see rows of plants that had already been picked, said Marion, a parishioner of Holy Cross Church in Charlotte. But once they walked over a ridge down a tractor path, they could see rows of squash that would otherwise have remained unpicked, he added. The volunteers got to work and filled eight dryer-size boxes.

"My hat is off to them," Marion said of farmworkers. "It’s an extremely challenging job."

In addition to getting a better appreciation of the difficulty of farm work, Kozlowski said that the experience was beneficial in many ways.

"It was great to see such a wide variety of ages from middle-schoolers to seniors, everybody helping and pitching in," he said. "I never really thought about the stuff that machines don’t get. People have to go pick that stuff. (Now) it’s going to a good cause, not out there being wasted."

Nelida Antonetti, a customer service representative, said that she brought along her 11-year-old son, Alexander Quiñones, to help him understand how lucky a child he is to not want for food.

"He actually said to me, ‘I’m glad I’m out here. It’s a lot of work and now we know what farmers go through,’" Antonetti added . "It’s easier to hear about it than actually be there and (do) the hard work and labor. … I told him, ‘I’m glad you liked it because we’re doing it again next year.’"

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