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.