200 volunteers to bag 10 pounds at a time; 17 counties served
Traditional harvest time might be over, but at least one ministry continues reaping year-round.
The Gleaning Network of the Society of St. Andrew’s local chapter is gearing up for its big “Crop Drop” Saturday, Dec. 16, which will provide about 40,000 pounds worth of sweet potatoes for needy individuals and families throughout the region.
About 200 volunteers will bag up 10 pounds at a time at Concord United Methodist Church, where representatives from 17 counties will come and pick them up.
The sweet potatoes, grown in Fayetteville, have all been donated to the cause, said Mike Smith, Knoxville’s Gleaning coordinator and long-time church member.
“Helping folks in need and knowing that people come and get fed, really makes your heart feel good,” Smith said. “I just thank the good Lord that there are folks who are able to [help] do it.”
He has been part of the ministry since 2008.
Smith said he was compelled to become involved when he saw a load of potatoes the size of a coal truck being dumped in a Nashville landfill.
“I asked someone about it, and they said it happened all the time,” he recalled.
“A lot of times, farmers can’t sell [all of their] potatoes. “They are [considered] not pretty or the wrong size.
“I just thought, no, we can’t let that happen. There is enough food in this country that no one should be hungry.”
The Gleaning Network program is national, and is operated by the Society of St. Andrews under the umbrella of the United Methodist Church. It was founded by two Methodist ministers in 1979 who had the idea that additional produce not utilized by farmers could be used in helping the hungry, based on the Bible verse Deuteronomy 24:19: “When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”
“[The ministry] is the best kept secret in the Methodist Church,” Smith said.
While potatoes and seed potatoes are a large portion of what the Gleaning Network distributes — of the four Crop Drops annually, most consist of potatoes — there are many other offshoots, too. The group also harvests fresh foods and produce from area farmers and programs. One farmer near Crossville provides roughly 10,000 pounds of green beans annually, allowing the ministry to take all they can from beans leftover from harvesting.
Just like the potatoes, Smith said the beans have to be a certain size and shape to be sold.
“Produce has to be perfect to sell it,” he added. “And that makes sense to me. If bananas are brown, or tomatoes have black spots, you don’t take them home. Then the stores just throw them away.
“A lot of food gets trashed if people like us don’t go and get it.”
One such example took place at the University of Tennessee earlier this year. As part of a five-year mulch study, the agriculture program grew 7,000 pepper plants.
“They just wanted to see how the mulch worked,” Smith said. “They didn’t need the peppers, so they asked if we wanted them.
“We got over 2,000 pounds of bell peppers!”
They shared them with local food pantries and shelters, as they do all throughout the year when they are able to get fresh foods and produce from outside sources, such as Edible Arrangements and Sunshine Supermarket, among others. Organizations they help include Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries, the Love Kitchen, Ladies of Charity and FISH, Smith said.
Two gardens planted and maintained at Concord United Methodist are also a component of the ministry. One is specifically a community garden, where all foods grown are given away. The other allows folks to “adopt” a row to grow their own foods, and, in return, they are asked to contribute 10 percent back to the ministry — and contribute 10 hours worth of work to the garden’s upkeep.
The gardens have become a pet project of church members and even children in the church’s preschool.
“We are trying to involve everyone we can,” said Smith. “Especially the youth.”
Although not much of a gardener before taking on this ministry, Smith said a master gardener class helped him tremendously, as has church gardeners Harry Tucker, Sherae Patterson, Allison Hannah, Ellen Lloyd, John Neal, John Randle, Gill Sallade and Bill Witt.
Janie Bitner and Marcia Lehman are both master gardeners who help extensively with the projects, too.
Smith gives all the thanks and praise to the Lord for the program’s continuous bounty.
“If the garden is growing, it is because of Him,” he said. “We are just little vessels who are just trying to help.
“But it is God who keeps making it happen.”