Jeff Newell of Durham spaces begonias at the Whiting Farm in Auburn. Newell is retired and volunteers at the farm with members of the Androscoggin Gleaners, a group that works with farms to provide surplus produce to people who can use it. Newell said volunteering at the farm is his way to give back following the farm’s commitment to providing food to such organizations as the St. Mary’s Nutrition Center. Sun Journal file photo

LEWISTON — As the Androscoggin Gleaners gear up for another season, they are hoping people are as excited as they are to get back outside.

The network of volunteers takes excess produce from local farms and distributes it to regional nonprofits, and the network is growing.

The Androscoggin Gleaners, a relatively new organization of just two years, delivered more than 14,000 pounds of fresh produce to local sites last year, doubling its take from its first season. The amount of produce they are able to pick ties directly to how many volunteers they can muster.

The group has partnered, so far, with eight regional farms and roughly 10 distribution sites, such as Hope Haven Gospel Mission and the Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston.

Its biggest goals are reducing food waste while increasing access to nutritious food.

According to the organization, 15,890 residents in Androscoggin County live with food insecurity. Of those, 37 percent do not qualify for food assistance programs.

The group describes itself as a network, given its planning team is composed mostly of employees from area nonprofits.

Lynne Holland is a community education assistant for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and through the extension trains volunteers to become master gardeners.

Holland said the concept of gleaning came from a cooperative extension program, Harvest for Hunger, and the already-existing Merrymeeting Gleaners group in Sagadahoc County.

She said while the program helps local food pantries, it also benefits farmers.

“A farmer really wants their food to be eaten,” she said. “They don’t want to see it become compost, and they certainly don’t want to see it become garbage.”

As the organization moves forward, it is trying to attract and retain a solid core of volunteers. Holland said following her master gardener training classes, she pitches the Androscoggin Gleaners as a way to learn about Maine’s food system while giving back to the community.

“It’s fun,” she said. “Once people try it, they usually come back. It’s just getting them out in the field that first time or getting them to a meeting for the first time.”

Other planning team members said the program gives volunteers a chance to see how farms operate and that making deliveries to local pantries is exciting.

“I got hooked,” one planning team member said. “You go out into the field and slog through the mud — it’s fun.”

Scott Roberts, a planning team member, said as word spreads about the group, it is receiving requests from more potential distribution sites.

At the group’s meeting this week, members discussed a request from the Auburn PAL (Police Activities League) Center in Auburn, an after-school youth center.

Becca Schoen, the group’s coordinator and SNAP-Ed nutrition educator for Healthy Androscoggin, said local pantries get a lot of food donations, but it is often not fresh produce.

“To get fresh blueberries or jalopeno peppers or fresh heads of lettuce is so awesome and different for them,” she said. “To me, that’s the best part.”

Eliza Huber-Weiss, the youth programs coordinator at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, is also a member of the planning team for the Gleaners, which was holding a meeting this week.

Huber-Weiss has the duel-role of gleaner and employee and St. Mary’s, where she said she sees the “direct connection between the food that farmers generously donate and the people who come to the pantry.”

She said people are “thrilled” to see produce like eggplants, peppers and tomatoes “that were picked fresh from the field just a few hours ago.”

The Androscoggin Gleaners are an almost entirely volunteer-run organization, with its only steady source of income coming from United Way to fund its part-time coordinator position. Labor, transportation and time, therefore, are mostly donated by volunteers, Huber-Weiss said.

The group also receives support — in terms of equipment — from Harvest for Hunger.

Huber-Weiss and other members of the planning team said they are proud of how the organization has engaged high school and college students. She said it often leads to discussions and learning about food insecurity, food waste and healthy farm economies.

“Our group is a hodgepodge of old and young, farmers and chefs, teachers and students, but we have found common ground working hard in the fields to make sure that as much food can get into the hands of those who want it as possible,” she said this week.

“It has been truly inspiring to watch this group evolve over the past year and half. I feel very lucky to have the chance to work with such dedicated folks on a project that invites anyone and everyone in to participate.”

But as the season begins, the group is “actively recruiting” new volunteers. Roberts said it especially needs help for “spot cleans,” where the group typically uses weekend days to pick extra apples or squash, when requested.

Holland said even two hours in a field once a month can make a big difference for the group and those who benefit from receiving fresh produce.

To volunteer or to learn more about the Androscoggin Gleaners, call 207-370-1061 or email: [email protected]

Know someone with a deep well of unlimited public spirit? Someone who gives of their time to make their community a better place? Then nominate them for Kudos. Send their name and the place where they do their good deeds to reporter Andrew Rice at [email protected] and we’ll do the rest.

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