Thursday, September 5, 2013

New program to glean fresh produce for Keene food pantry sees success

Anyone who appreciates seeing good news in the media (as I do) will appreciate this, especially if you care about people and farms in the Monadnock Region. Check out this week's Keene Sentinel article about the Community Kitchen's new gleaning program. Sarah Harpster, the program coordinator, is a great example of leadership on the way to a more resilient community.

Posted: Wednesday, September 4, 2013 1:00 pm | Updated: 5:01 pm, Wed Sep 4, 2013.

By Kyle Jarvis Sentinel Staff

Potatoes, apples and squash that may have been thrown out or used as animal feed can now go to local people in need.

The extra, fresh produce is being collected as part of the new Monadnock Gleaning program at The Community Kitchen in Keene.

The goal is for farmers, or even backyard gardeners, to share the bounty that might otherwise go to waste with clients of the Keene food pantry.

Sarah A. Harpster of Keene was hired by the kitchen in July to coordinate the program. She or volunteers collect the food and bring it to the kitchen. Most of the produce goes to the pantry, where families can pick up boxes of food once a week. The rest is used in preparing the hot meals the kitchen serves to clients.

It’s a program that’s gaining momentum, even as the number of people using the food pantry continues to grow.

Fresh herbs, potatoes, apples, squash, beets, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes, Swiss chard, and corn grown at local farms are just some of what’s available at the kitchen after gleaning.

Harpster’s 30-hour-per-week position is funded in part by a $4,600 grant from the N.H. Charitable Foundation, courtesy of an anonymous donor, and is part of the University of New Hampshire’s Farm To School program, said Phoebe Bray, executive director for The Community Kitchen.

The grant covers costs for Harpster’s wages, some fuel, and any materials that need to be purchased to keep the program going, Bray said.

In the past, the kitchen has worked with local supermarkets to glean their extra produce, she said.

“But those are usually very close to their ‘sell by’ dates,” she said.

The gleaning program fills a fresh produce gap that many community kitchens and food pantries struggle with, Harpster said.

“When you think of a charitable food system, of course it makes sense to do canned goods and boxed goods,” she said. “But good, fresh produce is least accessible to this population, and we’re bringing in a couple hundred pounds a week.”

Harpster can be found most Saturdays at the Keene Farmers Market on Gilbo Avenue, where she keeps in contact with local farmers who have leftovers as the day’s sales come to a close. She gathers up produce that farmers didn’t sell.

“It’s good food, but not perfect market food,” she said. “Or you think of apples, and it gets to the point where there’s just too many.”

Bray has been impressed by how quickly the program has caught on, she said.

“I didn’t realize how much farmers talk to each other,” she said.

Bruce and Joanne Smith own and operate High Hopes Orchard in Westmoreland, and have already donated several bushels of apples to the gleaning program, they said.

“We only pick the big ones,” Joanne Smith said. “So the little ones are there to glean. We have 20 bushels sitting here now we’re going to bring down (to Harpster).”

“Why throw them away?” Bruce Smith asked. “Hopefully we can give them to someone who needs it, and (clients at the kitchen) need it.”

Bruce Bickford owns the Abenaki Springs Farm in Walpole.

“(Gleaners) came down to the farm a couple weeks ago and picked some beans,” he said. “I think they got 30 pounds out of it.”

Thirty-two pounds, to be exact, Harpster said.

Bickford has also donated squash, cucumbers, kale, beets and potatoes, he said.

“The main reason I do this is to create good food for people to eat,” he said. “It is a good feeling to know that it’s going to people who need it.”

Bray said the program has been a great help.

“If you’re on food stamps, or a very restricted income, I think that affects what you buy,” she said. “And everybody needs fresh fruit and veggies, so the more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.”

That’s especially true in a time when the kitchen’s number of clients has increased by about 8 percent over last year, Bray said.

“It’s always a shock when I look at the pantry numbers, and even in a slow week, we have 1,000 families coming through the pantry,” she said, adding that busier weeks often yield 1,500 to 1,600 families.

For Harpster, who has a master’s degree in environmental advocacy from Antioch University New England, the job is a perfect fit.

“I’m kind of crazy about food and cooking,” she said. “I have a collection of 200 cookbooks at home.”

That passion has led to her spending some of her free time looking for recipes that clients of the kitchen can take home with them, along with their fresh produce.

Harpster said she hopes to increase the scope of the operation to glean from farmers’ markets in other corners of the Monadnock Region, as well as from home gardeners.

And because of the early success of the gleaning program, the pantry food is not only healthier, but more plentiful for clients, Bray said.

“Last week we had so much we doubled up on what they could take,” she said.

About 90 percent of the gleaned foods go to the food pantry, where clients can generally pick up one box of food a week, with the rest used in the kitchen’s hot meals program, Bray said.

“It’s the variety,” she said. “The fresher it is, the better it is, so it’s really nice.”

For more information or to get involved, contact Harpster at 903-2202.

Kyle Jarvis can be reached at or 283-0755. Follow him on Twitter @KJarvisKS.