Fields of gold

Table to Table's food rescue efforts are blossoming.

gardening batzal 88 298 (photo credit: Sam Ser)
gardening batzal 88 298
(photo credit: Sam Ser)
Levi has never picked leeks before. Neither has Sharon. For that matter neither has Mark Eilim, who has picked just about everything else. Fortunately, though, food rescue is easy. With a controlled tug and a light fold of the onion-like vegetable's long green leaves, Eilim and a handful of college-age Americans are on their way to a successful shift of leek farming. The students, who are here as part of a three-month Masa program called Go Galilee, in which they volunteer to teach English to Jewish and Arab kids near Haifa, have joined Eilim for a taste of a unique volunteer effort to provide food to the hungry. Not based on writing checks or canned food drives, Table to Table's Project Leket has volunteers visit farms and pick produce that might otherwise go to waste. It's an idea that has caught on quickly, with a lengthy roster of regular volunteers, including groups from birthright, Young Judaea, UJA missions, IDF units, students in the Perah community service program and more. In addition, companies such as Intel, Microsoft, Applied Materials and HP are frequent visitors to fields in Table to Table's network. Some companies, says Eilim, who coordinates Project Leket, send new groups of workers every month. Sharon's response is typical. After just a few minutes of hand-dirtying work in the fragrant fields, the environmental studies and social work student from New York is eagerly stacking her pile of leeks. "I feel great knowing that this is going to people who need it," she says. "The difference that you make doing this is so tangible... I'm really inspired!" To make sure that volunteers come away with at least as much inspiration as perspiration, Table to Table tries to limit the picking sessions to about an hour. "We want to keep it an enjoyable experience," Eilim says. "We want to leave them wanting to come back for more." With alarming findings about poverty and hunger surfacing all the time - according to the latest estimates, as many as one-fourth of Israelis are poor, and one-fifth of schoolchildren go hungry - the work of charitable organizations is vital to alleviate suffering throughout the country. Among the more than 100 different organizations that seek to treat the problem, Table to Table stands out because it makes use of a resource that already exists. Gleaning the fields on behalf of the poor, harking back as it does to Deuteronomy and the Book of Ruth, adds another emotional layer to the practice of charity. Table to Table was established in 2003 because Joseph Gitler, who had recently made aliya from New York, was shocked by the amount of food at catered events that went to waste. He started working with caterers to collect excess meals for charitable organizations, driving around at night to pick up the food from events halls and delivering it to soup kitchens and food banks. Pelephone and other companies soon joined the effort, contributing excess food from their cafeterias, and the whole thing took off. Within a year, Table to Table was providing 5,000 meals a week. FOUR YEARS later, its operations are much larger. With more than a dozen full-time employees and hundreds of regular volunteers, the organization now provides some 12,000 meals a week from its collections from caterers and corporate cafeterias. A separate volunteer-based program provides more than 1,000 subsidized sandwiches to schoolchildren every day. Project Leket ("gathering"), which is less than three years old, has created even bigger numbers: Its on-site volunteer picking sessions collect anywhere from 10 tons to 40 tons of produce a day, some 1,500 tons over the course of a year. Those numbers are born not only of a spirit of volunteerism and charity, but of the fickle nature of farming. Sometimes the price of a particular fruit or vegetable drops so low by the time the crop is ripe that picking it would cost more than the farmer's expected return on its sale. In such a case, the farmer usually lets the crop - although the produce is perfectly edible - wither. Another situation in which Project Leket steps in is when part of a crop is ruined. When this happens, farmers can apply for compensation from the government for the loss of their crops - but once they do, they are prohibited from picking the otherwise healthy produce. In normal circumstances, this food would go to waste. Also, according to Table to Table, 1.2 tons of edible produce is destroyed every year simply because of cosmetic flaws - meaning it is either too small or too large for sale at supermarkets, has an unusual shape or has superficial imperfections. Project Leket's goal is to rescue this food and bring it to those who need it. The initiative was born, in fact, of such a situation. In 2004, a persimmon farmer who heard about Table to Table called to say he would gladly donate plenty of the orange fruit, if volunteers would come collect them. "There were thousands of them waiting for us, strewn all over the ground," Eilim recalls. "Apparently, it is bad to let persimmons stay on the tree, so any fruit that is too large or too small to sell is picked and left on the ground. We came away with over 30 tons of persimmons!" Eilim, who had recently made aliya from South Africa ("with absolutely no clue about farming," he admits) and had been working for Table to Table as a driver on food pick-up runs, was suddenly tasked with expanding the organization's activities to include the rescue of fresh produce. Heading to a national farmers' exhibition, he set up a table - not to offer produce, but to ask for it. Farmers started signing up to inform Table to Table when they had excess produce, and Project Leket was on a roll. "So in a way, the idea kind of found us," says Eilim. "It's like it fell from heaven." PROJECT LEKET brings volunteers to fields all over the country, but the ones visited most often are located in the Coastal Plain near Tel Aviv. The field where the Go Galilee volunteers are picking leeks is part of an undeveloped plot of land just outside Rehovot that belongs to Sandy Colb, a wealthy patent attorney who made aliya from the United States nearly 35 years ago. After years in which he and his wife, gardening hobbyists who long ago started giving away their leftover vegetables, he has purchased several plots with the specific purpose of farming them and donating all the produce to charity. Today he employs dozens of workers to keep a carnival of produce - cabbages, onions, oranges, clementines, avocados, potatoes, sunflowers, carrots, zucchinis, kohlrabi, peppers, radishes and more - growing so that volunteers can harvest them for a number of food charity organizations. Colb's relationship with Table to Table, however, is significant; recently, he doubled the size of his holdings to 500 dunams (125 acres), on the condition that Project Leket would constantly provide volunteer groups to pick the produce. Eilim juggles requests from groups who want to help, fitting them into open time slots and explaining how to do the work. "[Colb] makes sure that the fruits and vegetables planted are easy for volunteers to pick," says Eilim. "You wouldn't want people who didn't know their way around a farm to come and accidentally trample a whole bunch of tomatoes." Volunteers come in all ages, from schoolchildren to pensioners who are looking to remain productive in their retirement. Project Leket even hosts bar and bat mitzva parties, Eilim says. "It's a pretty good deal," he remarks. "You get a free place to host your party, and the kids love being outside. Besides, you get to celebrate a mitzva by actually doing a mitzva." Walking through rows of fennel, with their feathery leaves waving in the breeze, it is easy to imagine how uplifting it can be to harvest fresh produce for those who need it. It's easy, that is, to understand why volunteers often tell Eilim they feel they have gotten more out of the experience than the hour or so of work they put into it. "For me, the best thing has been seeing underprivileged kids come here and get excited about helping others," says Eilim. "I remember one 15-year-old boy in particular who just lit up. As we were working in the fields together he said to me, 'You know, I'm so used to receiving. It's an amazing feeling to finally be giving.' "We don't realize, that there are some children in this country who, in 15 years, have never been in a position to give to others. This project gives them that opportunity." Pick a partner Ahead of Shavuot, Table to Table is calling on the general public to join "Leket 24," an around-the-clock rotation of picking from Sunday, May 20, into the next day. The event, which is meant to raise awareness about the organization and its efforts to rescue excess food for the hungry, will direct volunteers to fields throughout the country for shifts of gleaning that will benefit some 90 food charities and soup kitchens. Playing on the story of Ruth and Boaz that is such a prominent part of Shavuot and providing the chance of love growing in the fields, Leket 24 has arranged for groups of singles from JDate to work together. Those interested in participating in Leket 24, or in joining Project Leket at any other time, should call (09) 744-1757 or visit the Web site for details.