What started out with just a handful of FSA employees trying to do the right thing has turned into an annual event that spans six New Mexico counties.
Ten years ago John Perea, county executive director for Torrance County, N.M., started a project to glean pumpkins from farmers John and Dianne Aday.
“We started it as an effort to take pumpkins that were left in the field and still in good shape, and try to get them to needy children,” said Perea, who along with other FSA employees coordinates the event each year. “We try to find schools in areas which demographically have families that are lower income and in neighborhoods with a history of drug abuse and various social problems.”
Today, that effort has grown to include 200 volunteers from local Native American organizations — Isleta, Santa Clara, Zuni, San Ildifanzo, Northern Jickarilla and Santo Domingo Pueblos — several youth organizations, students from the University of New Mexico and employees of the USDA Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development.
It took about 50 vehicles to hold more than 8,500 pumpkins gleaned this year. The pumpkins left in the field are still good, but left on the farm to rot because the farmer has either filled his contract obligations or the pumpkins didn’t meet a certain class or size.
“We go into the fields after commercial harvesting is completed and we physically pick the pumpkins and load them into trailers and pickup trucks,” said Perea. “We have a great deal of success finding good pumpkins that will still make someone happy.”
About 1,500 students in the Torrance and Albuquerque County schools had smiles on their faces as trucks pulled up and delivered pumpkins to the students. The pumpkins also made their way to pediatric units at local hospitals, the St. Felix Pantry, a local food bank and youth centers in six counties around New Mexico. University of New Mexico students carved and decorated the pumpkins and delivered them to sick children.
“One day the local FSA guy called us up and asked if they could [glean the pumpkins]” said John Aday. “If it’s something that benefits the kids then I’m all for it.”
John and Dianne Aday have been farming their whole lives but have a commitment to making a positive impact in their community. They plant 60-80 acres of pumpkins annually and have opened their fields for the past 10 years to help support the project.
John Aday said he usually isn’t there when the actual gleaning takes place but he knows there are a lot of people participating because he sees plenty of vehicles. “I’m glad to help make a child happy,” he said.
Perea feels the same way. “I think that if we are even helping one child have a brighter day, we are making a positive impact,” he said. “I have given out thousands of pumpkins, and it literally makes my heart melt every single time I see that smile on that child’s face when I hand him or her that pumpkin, and I hear them say, ‘thank you.’”
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How are insurance concerns addressed in the gleaning project? Every one I've ever tried to initiate gets nixed over safety concerns for volunteers.
I was thoroughly inspired and moved to hear about this gleaning project. Thank you to everyone involved in rescuing pumpkins that brought smiles to so many children in New Mexico. I grew up in Northern NM and am now a doctoral student studying food and agriculture policy on the east coast. I'm keenly aware of the issues of hunger and food insecurity throughout the world and particularly in NM. I would love to see a next iteration of this fantastic gleaning project have a greater emphasis on utilizing the pumpkins (and other gleaned fruits/vegetables?) for cooking and nourishing those in need.
The majority of the volunteers were Forest Service, they should have received a mention.
In 2012 I was a visiting NRCS employee to the Forest Service's ASC in NM in 2012, and was lucky enough to participate. It was an opportunity to create alliances and team building across Agency lines, and is a model I am working towards for my current assignment for the Fed Feeds Family food drive.