Health and food bank officials in Merced County are teaming up on a project to make fresh produce more accessible to food pantries and low-income households.
The Merced County Food Bank and the Merced County Public Health Department are launching the Glean Grow Give project this summer as a way to add healthier food to diets, said Bill Gibbs, executive director of the food bank.
Gibbs said they’re looking for volunteers who are willing to harvest the excess produce that would be left in the fields, on trees or plowed under the ground, also known as gleaning.
“I think it’s going to help increase the quality of fresh fruits and vegetables in the food bank network,” he said. “It will help get that message out that the food bank is worried about quality of food in addition to quantity.”
When it comes to donations, Gibbs said, often times the food is processed, high in sugar and sodium. The food bank has been working with donors to receive healthier choices, he said, but it’s a gradual process.
“This program can help that process,” Gibbs said, so people can start paying more attention to the food that grows on the ground and not the food that comes in boxes.
Some extra funds from a grant the Merced County Health Department received helped start the program said Stephanie Russell, supervising health educator for the Merced County Department of Public Health.
“There are a lot of gleaning projects in other counties and other states and it made sense with all of the agriculture in this county to work with some of the excess,” she said. “It’s a great way for everyone to come together… to see extra produce in the fields get onto the tables of hungry families.”
In Merced County 16.7 percent of residents are food insecure, meaning they don’t have easy access to nutritional foods, according to the 2016 Community Health Assessment from the Merced County Department of Public Health.
Through a survey, Russell said, the health department found 20 percent of people who are part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, shop regularly at food pantries. Through Glean Grow Give, she said, the amount of produce in those facilities will reach more people.
Whether people have a couple fruit trees, small gardens in their backyards or acres on a farm the food bank is willing to work with them and have volunteers go out to harvest, Gibbs said.