Helen Palmer sporting a solar powered hat to keep her cool in the summer heat.
Helen Palmer remembers when she first heard about BAG—it was at a fair in Cambridge on green activism—and the moment itself is crystal clear.
“I signed up at once,” she said. “In a way, you don’t need to be convinced. It’s just such a no-brainer. If you think about it, it’s very simply forging a link in the chain that’s missing.” It’s filling a need for farmers, who have produce to spare, and for families, who are hungry for it.
Early on, Palmer, who is 72 and a public radio producer, would make harvesting trips with BAG founder Oakes Plimpton in the days when the organization was still getting grounded. Some of the expeditions were memorable.
“I recall going out in the snow to glean potatoes only to discover they were frozen in the ground,” said Palmer. Nowadays, things are a little more organized. And from the beginning, said Palmer, some really dedicated farmers were part of the initiative, even though there was no way for them to write their BAG contributions off their taxes, and they had to put up with strangers, many of whom knew little about farming, out their fields.
“I think the teamwork is absolutely awesome,” said Palmer. “I think the farmers are heroes. And I think the staff are amazing in terms of the amount of work they do.”
Not only does BAG attract hard workers, said Palmer, all of them are personable.
“The amazing thing is I’ve never met anyone at the gleaners that isn’t nice,” she said. “When it comes to the staff, they have such a great work ethic…I’m awed by them.”
And for Palmer, whose professional life requires her to spend a good deal of time behind a computer, thinking, the chance to dig in the dirt for three or six hours a week is a good antidote.
“It’s a perfect recreation for me,” she said. And inspirational, too. Though Palmer, who lives in Cambridge, has a garden and works conscientiously at it, she says she’s not terribly efficient. So, when she goes out to a farm and sees what’s possible, it’s exhilarating.
“People who know what they’re doing can produce these amazing crops that are there at the peak of their freshness, and to deliver to people who otherwise wouldn’t get it—it’s just so perfect,” said Palmer.
Sally Thompson, Devoted Volunteer (in light blue shirt, above)
For Sally Thompson, the Boston Area Gleaners popped up on her radar at just the right moment. About to retire, the Acton resident, now 66, was looking about for meaningful volunteer opportunities she could pursue when her time became her own.
Thompson’s spouse happened to visit the Wayland Winter Market one day in early 2016 where an enthusiastic BAG representative was handing out brochures and telling passers-by about all the good work the organization does. When the information made it home to Thompson, she knew she had found a new calling.
“I had grown up on a farm and had memories of the fun, the challenges, and the importance of growing crops to feed people,” said Thompson. “I also was retiring from a long career as a physician with an awareness of the importance of healthy food and a healthy environment to reduce the risk of medical illness.”
BAG’s mission spoke to her: Thompson, who is also a volunteer staffer at a food pantry in a neighboring town, was keen on the idea of rescuing surplus crops so they could be used to help those in need. Soon, she was joining gleaning trips, donating money, and volunteering in other ways, too. At the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, for instance, she helped staff a BAG table, and whenever she can, Thompson spreads the word.
“I talk about gleaning when I am in social settings to increase interest and perhaps volunteers,” she said.
And after listening to Thompson, who wouldn’t want to go on a gleaning trip?
“The experience is lovely,” she said, “whether picking apples in an orchard on a beautiful late summer day, picking sweet corn standing in long rows, cutting chard and kale kneeling in a field of greens, or picking tomatoes off their fragrant vines.”
For those who might worry about the work being too hard, don’t fret. “It can be physically challenging, but staff lean in to make the trip fit your ability,” said Thompson. “It is physically rewarding to glean. The physical nature of each trip differs. I see a gleaning trip as an opportunity to be physically active.”
The camaraderie and knowledge-sharing are additional bonuses, added Thompson. “I have met wonderful people while gleaning,” she said. “Retired professors who can speak very knowledgeably about many subjects. Other physicians with whom I can feel connection. Engineers are always fun. Teenagers meeting high school community service requirements provide their insights and energy.”
Gleaning organizations like BAG should be encouraged nationwide, said Thompson. “Knowing that I am participating in a process that reduces food waste between the farmers' fields and those in need is immensely fulfilling,” she said. “As a physician I am aware of the value of fresh vegetables and fruits to good health. In my retirement I feel I can continue my career-long mission to help those in need and improve their health. In fact, I feel I am helping large numbers of people rather than one person at a time.”
Rob Ann, Tess and Brad Tomlinson
There’s a good deal of truth in the saying about a photo being worth a thousand words: If Rob Ann Tomlinson hadn’t been intrigued by a full-page newspaper spread picturing a harvester in a field, she might never have learned about the Boston Area Gleaners. She might have skipped the story all together.
Instead, BAG has become a family affair for the Tomlinsons of Wellesley. Not only did Rob Ann, 72, decide to become a volunteer, she convinced her husband, Brad, (pictured above left) who had recently retired, to give it a try. It didn’t take him long to get hooked—deeply—and now, years later, their daughter, Tess, (pictured above right) has joined the BAG staff.
“I just liked the idea of it,” recalled Rob Ann. “It was pretty. It was outside. We enjoyed it entirely.”
That was all back in 2013, when the operation was a good deal simpler than now.
“I remember that first summer we caught the beginning of corn season,” said Brad, 74. “It was beautiful. Hot and hard work, but we were both healthy and able to do the work. It wasn’t nearly the organized and mechanized-assisted activity that it is today. It was pushing a banana box through the corn row and filling it up.” When the boxes were brimming, volunteers would lug them out of the field themselves, or call to one of the coordinators for help.
Today, Brad said, refrigerated trucks and front-loading buckets for apples make the work more efficient for everyone. But the charm of those early days, he added, lives on in the camaraderie and friendliness volunteers find in the fields.
“It’s still wondrous,” said Rob Ann.
And it’s still hard work. That’s inevitably the nature of farming. But knowing that up front helps volunteers gauge what they’re capable of, and which crops might suit them best.
“While there is a lot of bending, kneeling, squatting, lifting, and walking involved, there is no pressure on volunteers to do more than they can handle. Therefore, there is no reason for a healthy person of any age not to give it a try,” said Brad. “If you have flexibility in your schedule, it’s a wonderful way to fit in volunteer time.”
And BAG makes it easy: When gleaners sign up for a harvesting trip, they have a choice of crops, locations, and weather conditions, Brad noted.
For the Tomlinsons, there’s satisfaction in working with an organization that is striving to keep pace with a critical local need, and providing healthy eating options for people who might not otherwise have them.
“It’s exciting to be part of something that’s growing so much in terms of the pounds of food that is gathered and delivered to the various food pantries,” said Brad.
“It’s not a can of DelMonte’s green beans we’re talking about here,” said Rob Ann. “It’s pretty exciting to be able to produce high-value products.”
At 60, Somerville resident Todd Kaplan suspects he may be one of the longest-serving volunteers among the ranks of many who flock to the fields for the Boston Area Gleaners. He started picking produce for BAG back in the early 2000's when the organization trundled volunteers from farm to farm in a rickety, old van that belonged to founder Oakes Plimpton.
“That was the sole vehicle for Boston Area Gleaners” said Kaplan. “We are so much more professional nowadays.”
Since the beginning, Kaplan, a lawyer with Greater Boston Legal Services, has been drawn to BAG’s mission, especially after all he had learned about food delivery while volunteering in a soup kitchen in Washington, DC where up to 300 people a day were receiving meals.
“When you’re doing that kind of volume, you really have to do a lot of scrounging for food,” said Kaplan. At the wholesale markets, his team would retrieve foodstuffs on the verge of being discarded. “That got me into the idea that food recovery was a great thing and that you could turn it into something…to fulfill a real need.”
So, when Kaplan learned about BAG’s approach—gathering good, fresh food and getting it to people in need—it struck a deep chord.
“It was very attractive to me. I said that’s something I really want to do,” he recalled. “Once I started, the thing that kept me going was not only the mission but also feeling that we were really giving a gift of high-quality food to people in need.” Plus, a lot of the food is low-spray or organic—the kinds of produce that can be priced out of reach for many people.
“All of those things have kept me going, in addition to the camaraderie of people working together,” said Kaplan. “And, of course, it’s really nice to be out in the country. I don’t really get out to farms at all, except for gleaning.”
Even though he’s busy with work and frequently has to rely on carpooling to get to the farms, Kaplan still manages to squeeze in about 10 gleaning trips a year.
“Corn and apples are definitely the favorites,” said Kaplan. But he’s not averse to heading out on winter days to glean carrots, potatoes, and kale—all of which are hardy enough to survive the cold.
“It’s kind of nice, as long as it’s not raining,” he said, recalling one December trip to a farm where the gleaners stumbled on a row of pristine greens stretching almost as far as the eye could see. The farmer said they could take as much as they wanted as he had harvested all he needed and was about to plow the produce under to nourish the soil.
As wonderful as that gift was, there was a limit to how much the gleaners could actually take, said Kaplan, because the other side of the equation is distribution.
“One of the biggest challenges is matching the food to people in need—getting it to them quickly enough. And figuring out if you can hold stuff back in storage,” said Kaplan. “It’s a logistical thing.”
Logistics. That may be the operative word for BAG as it continues to scale up its operations. And from where Kaplan sits, the challenge isn’t just about how to get harvests from field to table, it’s how to get volunteers from home to field: He longs for a more robust carpooling system.
If only Zip cars could be gleaned.
As a working mom with three young children, there’s not much time left in Katherine Tarca’s busy life for extra-curricular activities that don’t include people under the age of five.
That’s why the Medford resident, who works on curriculum and instructional support in the state Department of Education’s office of literacy and humanities, has yet to take a gleaning trip with BAG. But that doesn’t mean she’s not keenly interested in the work the organization is doing to ensure that fields of gorgeous produce don’t go to waste.
“There’s a very easy way of taking this resource that would otherwise go to waste and put it to use: It’s such an appealing idea,” said Tarca, 35. “It’s the same as Airbnb or car sharing where you take a resource that’s sitting there, otherwise unused, and find a way to make it work, except this doesn’t make money for anyone. It does good for people in need.”
One example that always sticks with her are the drops in the apple orchards Tarca likes to frequent with her husband and kids.
“People don’t pick up the apples that are on the ground. What’s going to happen to all those apples?” asked Tarca, who is a gardener and knows well the energy and time required to nurture produce.
“A farmer went through all the work to grow this crop. It’s a terrible idea that it would just rot in the field—especially when there is someone who would like to have it,” said Tarca. “So it’s like a win, win, win.”
Tarca first learned about gleaning eight years or so ago when she was reading about sustainability issues. When she Googled the term to find out if there was any one locally involved in the concept: up popped BAG.
“There was stuff in Colorado and I think California. This [BAG] was the only thing around here,” she said. And so she began sending money.
“I like how much impact they make,” said Tarca, who reads all BAG’s newsletters. “To me, that’s evidence that it’s a good idea. When I send them a little bit of money I know it’s going to translate to pounds of food harvested or hundreds of servings shared. It just feels good.”
What would also feel good is getting out there with other gleaners and helping to harvest, but for Tarca, that hasn’t happened—yet.
“Having young kids I’ve never had the chance to actually go on a gleaning trip, although I really, really want to, and I am looking forward to doing that one day,” she said. “They’re starting to do some child-friendly excursion-like trips and I think there’s one coming up next month which I’m going to do with my older daughter . . . she’s only 5, and as they get older I’ll do it with them, or by myself.”
In the meantime, Tarca said she would love to see more photos of BAG’s process on social media because, for people like her who can’t easily go on field trips, it’s fun and inspiring to see all that the volunteers accomplish.
“When I get those images in my head of what the work looks like, it makes me want to support it more,” she said.
Mary Sue Ankner
When you live in a densely populated part of the world dotted with malls and office parks, crisscrossed by highways, and jammed with suburban homes, the notion that working farms—a lot of them—could be part of that mix might never occur to you.
For Mary Sue Ankner, an IT expert in the financial services industry who lives in Watertown, that has been one of the biggest delights since she first started volunteering with the Boston Area Gleaners.
“One of the best things I ever discovered was how many farms there are within an hour of my home,” she said. “I had no idea. These little beautiful farms tucked in all over the place. They’re fantastic.”
And it’s not just the number of them that thrills Ankner, it’s the spirit of the people who till their soil.
“I’ve been amazed over the years at the generosity of farmers,” she said. “More and more we have seen somebody plant an extra row for the gleaners. It’s remarkable. They’re going about making their living but they’re thinking of others, too.”
Ankner has been involved with BAG for about eight years, ever since she spotted a woman, a card table, and a simple sign at a sheep sheering festival.
“It was a little painting. It said Boston Area Gleaners. I was a little nervous, actually, walking up because the only thing I could think about the word gleaning was to glean an idea. . . . I was so afraid it was going to be a religious organization.”
But the next thing Ankner knew, she was hooked.
“She explained how they harvest the vegetables, excess crops. They get them to the food pantries and she had me at that,” said Ankner. “I hate seeing things go to waste. I have a tremendous amount of abundance myself and people are hungry.”
Soon, she was contributing as a gleaner herself. It’s the kind of volunteering that suits her spontaneous style—signing up for harvesting trips a few days in advance with no long-term planning required.
“For me, the gleaners are the most perfect thing in the world because I certainly know when I see an email on Wednesday that I’m available on Saturday,” said Ankner. “It’s a lot easier than saying a month from now I’ll give you my Saturday because who knows what might jump into my life between now and a month from now.”
And from the beginning the trips fed her soul.
“I have volunteered with a lot of organizations, with the gleaners I always felt like I contributed, right from the start,” she said. “You come home a little dirty. You come home a little tired, but you know you were put to work and you know it went to good use.”
For Ankner, who is keenly aware of how vulnerable families can be to hard times and how quickly healthy food can become out of reach for them, knowing her volunteer efforts will have an immediate effect is particularly gratifying.
“When I think about who is challenged by their meals, it can be pretty much anybody,” she said. “One health scare, one medical burden on a family could put them in that bucket. . . . One job loss could put the family at having to make decisions between pay the rent or feed the family.”
It’s important, she said, to ensure that families can get access to fresh produce.
“We’ve all got to eat, and it’s going to be better for us if we all eat better,” said Ankner.
Gretta Anderson knows better than most the myriad challenges farmers face: She spent years working as one. Now, she’s sharing that deep-rooted expertise with the Boston Area Gleaners as a member of its board of directors.
Anderson, 59 and a resident of Arlington, recalls clearly her reaction when she first learned about BAG back when she was running a community supported agriculture program.
“The first thing I thought was what a clever idea,” said Anderson, “because as a farmer I knew that to be successful I always needed to plant more crops than I could harvest.”
Overproducing is one way farmers can manage the risk of crop failure.
“As my mentor used to say, if you haven’t grown it you can’t sell it,” said Anderson.
“The profit margins are pretty narrow for these small farms, so overplanting by 10 to 25 percent was just a way of increasing the chances that I could stay in business.”
Tight budgets never allowed her to hire agricultural workers to harvest food for which she wasn’t paid, so the idea that BAG would bring a group of laborers into the fields to glean those extra crops for a good cause was an appealing concept, said Anderson.
But then, her next reaction was trepidation.
“I did not invite the gleaners to my fields for a number of years, because as a farmer I was very concerned about having non-farmers in my fields. Volunteers can really do significant damage to a farmer’s crops. They can inadvertently spread disease through high-value crops. They can trample crops. It’s just a little horrifying.”
Those worries were laid to rest when Anderson met BAG’s Matt Crawford and she quickly realized she was dealing with a fellow farmer deeply in tune with her perspective.
“He was very sensitive to my concerns . . . and that really made all the difference,” she said, adding that BAG volunteers are lead by people who are very well trained in how to harvest crops properly. “They are a paid staff and volunteer crew who have excellent leadership and training about being in farm fields.”
That’s good news for farmers who are drawn to BAG’s mission of rescuing surplus crops for people in need.
“I think the gleaners provide a very important service in helping the folks who are food insecure have a healthy diversity of food, including fresh fruits and vegetables” said Anderson. “Most farmers are pretty darn excited about working with the gleaners.”
But harvesting the produce is just one step in ensuring food diversity. Storing it and delivering it are also essential steps, and the staffers at BAG are experts in that arena, too, said Anderson.
“If you want to try and distribute a million pounds—or whatever our goal is—you’re going to have to think bigger…which means cold storage, trucks for distribution, fork lifts,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing the level of expertise on the staff.”
And the same goes for BAG’s board, which Anderson says is filled with smart, thoughtful, committed people.
“For me, in retirement, it’s the perfect fit,” she said. “I wanted a place I could use my experience, knowledge and brain. The gleaners’ board is a very satisfying place to work.”
Ken Osgood, at Upswing Farm gleaning chard. Photo credit: Bob Durling
At 55, Ken Osgood of Cambridge has the good fortune to have been retired for a few years, but that doesn’t mean he’s the retiring sort. He’s anything but that.
Three days a week during harvest time you’ll find him—with a water bottle, knee pads, a three-legged ladder, or whatever the job requires—working in fields around Massachusetts. One of those days he gives to the Field of Greens in Lincoln, and two of them he donates to BAG, travelling to farms where there is produce to glean.
Osgood has always spent a lot of time outdoors. As a child growing up in southern New Hampshire, his playground was the swamps and woods on the 30 acres his father bought in the 1960s. Later, through his teen years and college, he worked part-time at an apple orchard.
“I just came to find a lot of satisfaction in being able to track, in that case, fruit through the entire cycle of the year,” he said.
With BAG, Osgood has found that kind of satisfaction again—on multiple fronts.
“My primary interest was in just getting out and being physically active. And I’m interested in food waste issues and things like that,” said Osgood adding, “a lot of my pattern of charitable donations is about groups that help people who are disadvantaged in various ways. Hunger groups have become a significant part of that.”
Having volunteered for BAG for four years, Osgood’s preference is not to work on consecutive days because sometimes the tasks can be draining.
“The morning after some intensive gleaning, I feel older than I am,” he said, recalling one 90-degree day he spent picking chard. “That was intensely difficult.” But Osgood has developed a strategy for those kinds of brutal temperatures: He carries a water bottle together with a cold pack in an insulated bag, and makes sure he takes a swig every few minutes.
However tough the conditions occasionally may be, the camaraderie on gleaning trips helps to smooth out the bumps.
“The people who do this tend not to be boring, one-track type people,” said Osgood, who is a history buff and was delighted to learn from a fellow gleaner the other day all about the history of mead. “I enjoy chatting with people I’m working with while we’re picking.”
Sometimes, because it’s so delightful to be outside, Osgood will work beyond the usual three-hour shift volunteers commit to.
“There was a time last year where I basically picked apples until dark. It was a really nice day in October. It felt nice to be out there,” he said.
And then, there are the gleaning trips that are like no other—the ones that can send you tumbling back through the years to the more carefree time of your childhood. That’s how Osgood described a trip to Dracut to pick collard greens in the snow. Unsurprisingly, he said, there were just two gleaners working that January day.
“There was a space between the road the field that was covered with hard-glazed snow pack, so we were kind of sliding down the hill, bringing our boxes out to the field—laughing a lot in spite of the cold,” he said.
All told, Osgood has been on 140 trips. And like other people talk about their jobs, he talks about BAG—a lot.
“People tend to be very interested,” said Osgood. “They mostly aren’t familiar with this sort of work.”