Group hoping to take unharvested produce to shelters meets resistance

Clare Howard

Pumpkin pie, or lack of it, is making central Illinois part of a national discussion about food waste and hunger in America.

Central Illinois is where most of the country's commercially produced canning pumpkins are grown. National media focused on the area last month, explaining that unusually wet weather this fall meant literally thousands of pumpkins on 5,000 to 6,000 acres of farmland could not be harvested. The pumpkins will be plowed under.

The country's largest not-for-profit, charitable food-gleaning organization says that didn't need to happen.

The Society of St. Andrew, an organization that gathers food for pantries and soup kitchens, based in Big Island, Va., points to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics indicating 96 billion pounds of food are wasted each year in America. That's one ton of food for every hungry person in this country, said Steven M. Waldmann, St. Andrew's executive director.

"There is an ethical issue in this. We are a faith-based organization, and it's not right to let good food go to waste," he said. "This does not take food off your table or mine, but it makes better use of the resources we have."

The Society of St. Andrew has 30,000 volunteers nationwide, including operations in Illinois. Each year, the organization gleans 20 million to 30 million pounds of fresh produce.

Waldmann said there is no liability issue involved with the decision to allow gleaning.

"Good Samaritan laws apply as long as the food is suitable to eat and is OK for market, then we can glean it," he said.

In general, good Samaritan laws protect people who volunteer to help others.

Libby owns the pumpkins and in typical years processes the pumpkins grown in central Illinois at its Morton facility. The Morton operation supplies 80 percent to 90 percent of the nation's canned pumpkins.

Libby spokeswoman Roz O'Hearn said the corporation would not consider allowing its pumpkins to be picked for food pantries or soup kitchens.

"This is our own proprietary seed. We lease the land from farmers, and we would not grant access to the fields," O'Hearn said, explaining that the wet weather this autumn prevented the corporation's heavy harvest equipment from entering fields.

"This is our own Libby Select Dickinson Pumpkin. It's proprietary seed."

Waldmann said his organization often gathers patented and genetically modified crops.

"The ethics of genetically modified food is really a political question. If food is approved for eating, we can use it," Waldmann said. "I think the rationale some corporations come up with is because they don't want to put up with gleaning, but there is nothing in our operation that is a threat to a corporation or its patent."

He said it is rare that a corporation decides not to allow gleaning because of proprietary seed.

In central Illinois, The Society of St. Andrew has not been successful in getting permission to glean from Green Giant or Del Monte. Neither company responded to inquiries asking for the corporate policy on gleaning.

"They just don't want to mess with us. We take care of everything, but it does require a little coordination," Waldmann said, noting that the food his volunteers gather typically stays in the area where it was grown.

Carol Breitinger, communications director for the Society of St. Andrew, said if a corporation is worried about proprietary seed, the society can provide documentation guaranteeing the food only will be distributed to food pantries and soup kitchens.

"Get us together and we can work this out so there are no problems for the corporation," Waldmann said.

Illinois Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, wants to do just that. He's interested in establishing contacts with the Society of St. Andrew, area churches, anti-hunger coalitions and food corporations.

"Gleaning ought to be allowed and encouraged," Koehler said.

Koehler said he plans to research the status of current Illinois tax benefits for corporations and individuals that allow gleaning.

"I question if there could be a better state tax incentive. It would be excellent if the federal government offered a tax benefit (for gleaning)," Koehler said.

Paul Caselton, an attorney with the Illinois Department of Revenue, said corporations can take a deduction for the value of gleaned food if it goes to a charitable organization for federal tax purposes. There is no specific Illinois tax benefit for gleaning.

John Zingaro, minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Moss Avenue, said, "My experience with corporations is that they are generally eager to help once you show them a way. We have a food pantry we run with St. Mark's Catholic Church. If we sent out a call, I think we'd have an enthusiastic group of people show up in the fields."

Recent cold weather clinched the fate of the Libby pumpkins.

"You can tell driving by that the pumpkins are starting to rot," said Teresa Santiago, who farms in the Eureka area and often takes her own excess produce to Heart House, a homeless shelter in Eureka. "It's a shame. It just eats at you. That was useful food, and it didn't have to end this way."

Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250