What do farmers do with their leftovers?

blueberries

The Society of St. Andrew has an answer for that

The Social Circle Theater's blueberry patch serves as a U-pick fundraiser, the proceeds funding scholarships for young artists. The likelihood that the entire crop will be harvested is slim, which raises the question - what will become of the remaining fruit?

With the help of the Society of St. Andrew, an ecumenical, non-profit organization which seeks to eliminate food waste, a portion of that extra produce will be collected and distributed to various food banks, soup kitchens and homeless shelters in Social Circle and surrounding communities.

Since its founding in 1979, SoSA's mission has been to provide those in need with fresh produce to supplement the nonperishable items often donated to feeding programs. The organization is headquartered in Virginia, but expanded in 1992 to establish regional offices tasked with coordinating the gleaning network. According to Adam Graham, SoSA's regional director for Georgia, gleaning - the harvesting of leftover produce to feed the hungry - is an agricultural practice as aged as the Old Testament.

SoSA established a regional office in Georgia in 2007, helping farmers and gardeners across the state to give back to the communities in which they work and live.

"There is a lot of food that Georgian producers waste, and it's not because they want to," said Graham. "It's because they don't have an outlet when the grocery stores reject it, and the packing house is so full you just can't put anything else in there."

By pairing up with food producers who are willing to donate their surplus or unmarketable fruits and vegetables, SoSA bridges the gap between food waste and the people who can use food resources that would otherwise be left in the fields to rot.

"We try to address food waste at the farm level. A lot of people only think of food waste through grocery stores, people who buy food and throw it away before they prepare it, or restaurant waste," said Sandi Newman, South Georgia program coordinator for SoSA in Tifton. "But this is where farmers have to grow a certain percentage over what they are contracted for to make up for weather issues or disease, or where the market declines and they are left with excess produce remaining in the field."

SoSA serves as a liaison between farmers and feeding agencies by leading field gleanings made up of volunteers who want to give back to their community, said Newman. As a volunteer-driven ministry, the gleaning network carries out its mission at no cost to the farmer, volunteers or produce recipients.

SoSA works with groups of all kinds to orchestrate volunteer efforts. There are volunteer opportunities for individuals as well as groups large and small, and an array of tasks for helping hands who may be unable to glean but can serve in other ways.

"We'll take any kind of group, as far as a gleaner goes," said Graham. "Senior groups, church groups, 4-H." Bill Brim, co-owner of Lewis Taylor Farms in Tifton, says market quality standards force a lot of quality produce to go to waste. Brim and partner, Ed Walker, donated an estimated 49,000 pounds of fresh produce to SoSA in 2017.

"We've got all these vegetables that there is nothing wrong with them, it's just that our consuming public and chain stores want it to be perfect. So, when we grade we have to grade really hard. It may have a scrape, a scratch or a little scuff on it," said Brim. "This makes for a lot of good product that's going to waste."

The organization is always seeking partner farmers of various commodities and sizes. From operations as sizable as Lewis Taylor Farms to the Social Circle Theater to a backyard gardener, all donations are welcome and encouraged.

Those who donate will certainly reap the personal and professional benefits of their generosity. Farmers receive a year-end letter summarizing the total pounds of produce donated. This letter proves helpful when filing taxes as the food donation deduction may apply. Plus, giving back makes farmers feel good, says Brim.

"It's a matter of taking just a little extra time to do it. We are strong proponents of giving back to the community. We think it's real important," said Brim. "We've been blessed so we might as well bless somebody else."

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