Each Saturday, volunteers emerge early in the morning to glean in fields for the sake of others through Food Justice of Geneva.
With varying levels of attendance, volunteers arrive prior to 8:30 a.m. every Saturday at the parking lot behind Denny’s along Canandaigua Road before heading to the fields.
Coming from surrounding communities and primarily among retired residents, most gleaners return each weekend throughout a 16-week harvest season that usually starts in August and lasts until mid-November.
Once everyone convenes, a caravan of vehicles drives along dirt roads that run along rural farmlands until they reach their destination: the farm of Bejo Seeds in Geneva.
Last Saturday, Food Justice sought to pick fresh produce from the planted demonstration plots, which essentially are located within a field and used to test how seeds would grow.
But before their harvest begins a prayer circle forms and Deacon Henry Farro asks for spiritual grace.
After they exercise their routine ritual of prayer, the crew ties their aprons and slides gloves over their hands, ready to pluck fresh produce off the vine and out of the soil in the form of broccoli, peppers, radishes, beets, carrots, kale and onions.
Gleaners old and new join Food Justice side-by-side amid the 37-degree crisp and chilly but sunny morning.
Gleaning, a term that appears in the Bible, particularly the Book of Ruth is a custom that transpires following a harvest as a means to feed the poor and less fortunate.
Despite filling several cardboard boxes and crates full of produce after a few hours, volunteers still barely made a dent in clearing the plots of food.
After stacking the boxes and crates onto a steel wagon, they are pulled and loaded onto Farro’s white van and brought to Food Justice’s warehouse facility located on Avenue D, which neighbors the Center for Concern.
Each box or crate of produce is weighed in pounds, tallied and totaled before being stored inside their walk-in cooler; and this particular haul tips the scale at 572-pounds, all of which was collected in less than three-hours.
Farro considers Food Justice as “meticulous about our data and numbers” by keeping a log for the number of boxes filled, pounds of produce gleaned and delivery sites visited during each season.
As their fall season concludes this upcoming Saturday, Food Justice gathered an estimated 29,000 pounds of produce last year from the demonstration plots alone.
Despite such success, the organization is still not a 501(c)3, but Teresa Schmidtka-Shaffer, co-chair alongside Farro hopes to gain their nonprofit status by this upcoming December.
For the last five-years, Food Justice has operated by “funding out of pocket” and by procuring a nonprofit title designation, the organization shall be eligible to apply grant opportunities.
Even after obtaining their official 501(c)3 status, Shaffer still seeks to remain independent in Food Justice’s future efforts.
“I want to be self-sufficient,” she said.
Fortunately for Food Justice, the community has collectively contributed to their cause along the way while surpassing their fifth-year of gleaning.
Bejo Seeds, Cornell AgriTech and Hansen Farms of Stanley, among other individuals and businesses have supported their charitable cause wholeheartedly.
Tools for Social Change purchased a trailer that was eventually transformed into a mobile cooler and the City of Geneva subsidized costs to modify a walk-in cooler and also covered the first year’s rent for a storage warehouse where the walk-in is located.
Shaffer considers Food Justice’s budget as “shoestring” already, wishing that the city gave prior notice to them about recent budget cuts.
During the 2019-20 city budget year, the organization was allocated $4,950 and this upcoming year’s 2020-21 approved city budget drops their collection by nearly half to $2,745.
Despite the uncertainty of funding dips, Food Justice fared well following the 2020-21 city budget’s allocation in comparison to its partner agency peers.
Out of 14 organizations that requested aid, only eight obtained some form of financial assistance and Food Justice ranked fifth overall for the highest pay-out among partner agencies.
Entities like BluePrint Geneva have suffered from city cutbacks by removing their budget lines altogether.
Comparatively, partner agencies like Food Justice last year received a total of $133,450 that was divided among the 14 organizations, but only $98,975 has been allocated to the same groups for this year’s city budget.
The visible decline accounts as an overall reduction in the partner agency budgeting by $34,475, which crunches-out to nearly a quarter of last year’s total budget allocation.
But beyond budgeting, Food Justice remains ever-focused on supporting those who are simply hungry and suffer from food access insecurities.
For some in the city, the food issue has been considered foreign to them: an invisible problem, but volunteers like Food Justice co-chair Farro sees the need and does not shy away from telling others about it.
“You have to see the need. We see the need every day,” Farro said.
This last winter, Food Justice started a winter gleaning season that was created from a partnership with the Compassion Coalition of Utica and collected an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 pounds of produce.
“We’re talking about tons,” he added.
Its second winter season is anticipated to start in January and typically ends in June.
Farro, who is retired and currently suffers from a shoulder injury admits on still going-out to the fields every other day to pick fresh produce, filling his van full of food for the community, calling it his true mission.
“It’s a calling. It’s our calling,” Farro stated.
This upcoming Saturday, October 26 will be Food Justice’s last gleaning session of the fall season.
Those who feel compelled to the calling are encouraged to meet Shaffer, Farro and company by no later than 8:30 a.m. at Denny’s on 813 Canandaigua Rd. in Geneva.
– Reporting & Photos by Gabriel Pietrorazio
An undergraduate student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Pietrorazio has written for the Town Times of Watertown, Connecticut and Finger Lakes Times in Geneva, New York. He’s currently a reporter for FL1 News, and can be reached at [email protected].