Evan Shreffler is in the College of Arts & Sciences Class of 2022 and is majoring in Environmental Studies. He is originally from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
I knew I wanted to share my experiences with my town’s Gleaning Project, as I believe it is the most significant environmental justice organization I have been a part of. However, I am a fairly indecisive person when it comes to deciding on what to share. I wanted to share background on the Gleaning Project, I wanted to to share pictures of what gleaning entails, I wanted to share quotes from friends and others who I met on the project, and I wanted to share my small stories, experiences and memories of all the good times I had while gleaning. As a result, I attempted to create a combination of every little thing that I could pull from.
My overarching story or main narrative is gleaning. I think it’s such a wonderful experience that has helped a lot of struggling people out in my town. Volunteering can be really challenging for people; they either don’t think they are really making an impact or just don’t enjoy themselves or just don’t feel that sense of accomplishment or community. I wanted to just show the importance of these smaller organizations. A lot of places/communities across the US do not have the availability or access to fresh produce. And unfortunately, local governments have not been able to help; whether that be because of funding, unwillingness to, or bureaucratic red tape. It’s up to non-profit organizations to fill this need. And it’s really challenging to do, as nonprofits are faced with working on a shoestring and can feel burnout. Sometimes, organizations just don’t get the job done; their grants are wasted. I was motivated to show my times at this project and why I believe it goes above and beyond to fight food insecurity, inaccessibility, and scarcity in communities that are dear to me. Not only that, but the project brought communities together, rejecting that sense of economic and societal individualism that we are becoming more and more accustomed to. I was extremely inspired to talk about this phenomenon because I think it’s a true light in the darkness that is environmental injustice.
Hopefully this piece is as enjoyable reading as it was for me writing. The hometown connections and memories that I was able to revisit for this were incredibly lovely.
Keywords: Autobiographical; photography; Pennsylvania; social inequality; food equality; agriculture
My Experiences With The Gleaning Project
When you’re in high school looking for community service hours, you aren’t looking for anything in particular really. It’s supposed to be a means to an end. Whenever you hear about an opportunity, you jump at the chance… whatever it may be. You go with your friends who also need to fulfill hours, just so you can get through it together. It’s not supposed to be fun or necessarily impactful, the only thing you might get out of it is a feeling of goodness in your heart.
In high school we are still learning about ourselves and figuring out things, even ourselves. It’s quite odd, I think, how undefined we are. There are some feelings we have that we don’t know how to name, explain away, or justify. For myself, I didn’t understand why I was feeling in a constant rut. School, sports, repeat. School, sports, repeat. School, sports, repeat. Living in a rural town in Pennsylvania, there’s not much more you’re expected to do. You’re bound to find some sort of escape, and everyone ends up finding it. But finding it was the trickier, more interesting part. Some try really hard to find their passion or whatnot, something they are good at or enjoy doing. Other people find their escape through stumbling upon it. The bottom line is that it’s supposed to be something that gets your mind off of the chaos of life, removing yourself from struggles altogether. It’s easy and carefree. I stumbled upon mine. My escape was the Gleaning Project; a project dedicated to food sustainability, food insecurity, and community partnership. Something that was entirely good. Something that is hard to replicate now that I think back on it.
In the four growing seasons I lived back at home, I always found an excuse to go glean. It’s always such a highlight for me and has always been a sizable part of my life. Below are some of my experiences and memories that make me cherish the escape that I found.
Watermelon and Vans
It was an October day. My junior year. A chilly, crisp, red-skied day. Pennsylvanian autumns always feel a certain wonderful way. I heard about a chance for volunteer hours at some farming slash picking fruit slash whatever ‘thing’. I didn’t know. I picked up two of my school buddies and we headed to a nearby farm where we were supposed to meet the “gleaning coordinator”. To my surprise, it was just some guy. Some random guy with a 5 o’clock shadow, sweet hat, and graphic tee shirt with a ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’-d carrot on it. Hopefully you can imagine that in your head (I am a proud owner of a shirt with that design now. Pretty rad). He was driving the ugliest maroon van I’ve ever seen; looked like if Mystery Incorporated from Scooby Doo did a total (purposely god awful) rebranding. The guy’s name was Jay. He was from the area and graciously welcomed us. He told me the reasons why he was a part of the project that he loved being a part of. He said today’s glean was a special one, especially for a place like Chambersburg, my home town. Coveted watermelons.
Oblong, deformed, yellow-skinned, too ripe or not ripe enough watermelons. I learned that the food we were picking was food that farmers couldn’t sell to grocery stores because of their shape, color, size, ripeness, taste, etc. And we were taking the food back to “headquarters” to give it for free to people in need in the morning. Before I knew it, we were in the field with the melons. After an hour we realized there was a faster way to collect: working as a team. We, the ten or so that were there, strategically placed ourselves. We formed a line, from the van to the end of the field where most of the best watermelons were. We stood about 10 or so feet from the next person; and would toss the melons from person to person down the line. It was joyous and fun. One watermelon was dropped, so we decided to break it open and eat it afterwards. It was so sweet and filling. Driving my buddies home that night I knew I would be back again, whether they joined me or not.
“I knew I wanted to work on food systems, equity, food access, local agriculture, conservation, local and economic development, and community organizing. I already enjoyed growing food and sharing with others, so all those things combined brought me to this job.”
-Jay, Gleaning Coordinator and Friend
“I’ve worked and volunteered on rural, local farms. This is where I was introduced to the fact that although a single town could produce the bulk of the food in the region, a lot of people were still food insecure there. I see that again in Chambersburg, where there are so many vegetable farms. Farms are ultimately a business unfortunately and do not have the obligation to these poorer people near to them.”
-Liz, Gleaning Coordinator and Friend
Rainbows and Purpose
It was the same spiel every time. Over the four years that I helped out, I sort of memorized it. Why we are here today, volunteering. The gleaning coordinators; Jay, Abby, Liz. I look(ed) up to all of them. And looking back now, they had my dream job. They were so cool. Before you start gleaning, the coordinators gather everyone around to talk about why we are here. “We are here this afternoon to pick pink peaches” “We are here this morning to pick red apples” “We are here this evening to pick green and purple tomatoes” It’s always quite different and special. You could make a rainbow out of all the food that we pick. Almost as if reading my mind, rainbows would frequent over the muddy fields where we would pick.
I vividly remember how pink the peaches were on a soft, warm day in June. One of the first gleans of the season. The farm where we were was about 30 minutes away, right on the Mason-Dixon Line. To get there, I drove in the maroon van with a few other volunteers. One woman had her younger daughter along. I talked to her about her soccer team and how she was excited to play on the freshman team next year. I gave her advice on how to survive high school. Halfway there, I stuck my head out of the window because of the complete lack of air conditioning. When we got there, we got out the bags and crates, ready to collect as many as we could. Abby gathered the crowd around to start the glean. She began by informing us who worked at the farm. She said it was family-owned and that generations have helped out at the farm. She continued saying that the family paid their workers very well, giving people that immigrated to America a well-deserved chance for a long, care-free, sustainable life. Next, she talked about who would be receiving these peaches. A local Boys and Girls club would be receiving them so that the kids would have a nutritious meal after school hours ended. And that leftover ones would either be distributed to food pantries across the county or made into pies for needing families more nearby. Then, she would talk about why it was so important for us to be out there; picking food for those that needed it. And that we had some volunteers in the crowd who were leaders of those communities that were thankful of what we were doing. After that, she talked about the peaches we were picking. Abby detailed how farmers grew the peaches, what the harvest was like, and whatnot. She talked about what good peaches looked like and felt like. They were firm, but not too firm. They had a little squish to them.
When we finished picking the peaches, she gathered us around again. Her job was to count or weigh the amount we hauled in; filling the ancient van to the brim. She announces what the total is and we cheer for the cause we had learned about an hour prior. Some people in need took some peaches home in their decorative tote-bags, saying they were going to pack them for their children’s lunches. On the long drive home I shut my eyes and remembered the cheering and smiles on everyone’s faces.
“In-field gleans for volunteers is a real communal experience. The way in which gleans are structured- giving supplies to folks, them getting comfortable with one another first, to take time to visit and say hello to everyone and be introduced and make new friends- was pretty great. Then, from there, explaining why we were there, the work we were doing, why it was valuable and impactful in a personal way. All of those things brought folks together in a really special way. That kind of immediate satisfaction is really rare.”
“The gleaning project is all about relationships. You need to create strong bonds with different volunteers. Each year we bring about 200 people. Some only come once or twice, but some will come multiple times each and every year like you. Finding those special people [is so important]. Being a newcomer [to the job, Chambersburg area, and the Project], it was really cool and uplifting knowing there were consistent volunteers who were impassioned in the work and mission already. [So I could jump right in]”
Corn and Volunteers (and Peace)
Corn gleans were the most common glean. Sweet corn is a must have at any homemade holiday dinner. (Sweet corn can even be eaten straight off the cob, funny enough). Big, gigantic fields. It took about 15 to 20 volunteers to get all the corn in the 2 evening hours. Now, when I am driving through the backroads of my county, I still will remember which fields I was once in.
During corn gleans, you can really choose what you want to do. You can team up with others to try to relay as much corn as possible, or you can go by yourself. As much as I loved the feeling of teamwork, I sometimes more enjoyed the feeling of being on my own and doing my own thing. The silence and coolness of summer and fall evening breeze. Walking through the corn fields, trying to find ones that were perfect. The sun setting, and the stars and moon showing themselves overhead. Clearing your head is perfect when among the sounds of nature. The insects, critters, distant water running, boots stomping through the field a few rows down. The smells are intoxicating even though they certainly shouldn’t be. You can see another gleaner a few yards down also taking their time, probably clearing their mind from a hard day. Peacefulness.
Parents in low-income neighborhoods are working a 50 hour week to make ends meet. I’ve been able to reflect upon the opportunity and the privilege I had to not work these long strenuous hours; instead helping to provide food for these parents.
Lots of people do not get a break, to be with nature and that type of calmness. A break is needed and gleaning provides that. Gleaning provides an escape into nature, where a lot of low income families are without due to where they live. Breaks and escapes are essential in the world we live in. I loved and enjoyed every single one of my fellow volunteers. Yet, the best sight was seeing families of lower income come to help out. Hearing quotes of “this is so relaxing after a long day of work” was really cool.
“Myself and my entire family love the Gleaning Project. All sides of it. Volunteering really brings my family together, away from our home and to a place far away. My kids love to get their shoes muddy and hear the sounds of animals at night. It is a place of teaching for my kids and even myself. Being able to then bring home some food from a glean is really special. It teaches my kids that hard work pays off. We then will eat the fruits and vegetables that night; my children love the juicy tomatoes and corn the most. We are neighbors with a lot of families that utilize the fresh food that the Gleaning Project provides. I tell my children that our work in the fields helps our neighbors keep healthy.”
-A Frequent Volunteer and Receiver of Produce (30-year-old Hispanic man, father, community leader)
Conversations and Emotions
The conversations you have at gleans are the best. They’re oddly authentic. I mean, of course, there are reasons they shouldn’t be authentic. These are people who you barely know. There’s no reason you should be vulnerable around people that don’t know your last name, but it happens. You realize quite quickly, though, that you have a lot in common with the people picking fruits and veggies next to you. The warmth of the orange sun setting matches the warmth that they illuminate and give off. Throughout all my gleans, I have made friends with so many people in my town. I remember helping a young boy pick some apples; lifting him up to reach. I remember having a conversation with a couple; asking about basketball since it was their son’s favorite sport. I remember creating good friendships with the regular gleaners. We would go to Sheetz afterwards for a bite to eat. The most vivid conversation I can remember is when someone came out to me sitting around husking and shucking the corn.
Shucking corn on the side of the road, cars whisking past us, honking in support whenever they saw the “Gleaning Now” sign. I was sitting next to two gleaners, both my age, one a guy and one a girl. We were sharing stories and sharing our favorite things. After hundreds of corn, you get used to the feeling of husking. You start to gain muscle memory and you can shuck without looking down. You can focus your attention on the people right in front of you.
An hour into the glean, our mouths were dry. Not from the sweltering heat, but from talking and talking and talking. The guy said to us that he wanted to tell us something he had never told anyone before. His voice got incredibly silent and he said that he was scared to say it. We encouraged him to tell us; this was a safe space with safe people like us. Encouraged, he shared with us that he was gay. It was a beautiful moment. 17 year old and I didn’t personally know a single gay man. It was surreal to me. I hugged him afterwards and it just felt like such a lingering moment that I have yet to forget. Since then, I have met more people who have told me about their sexuality or gender identity. And each one reminds me of this same night. Even discussions I’ve had with others about my own sexual identity brings me back to this conversation. The courage that this friend had with me has helped impassion me as well.
These moments only happen because of a community coming together. I never meet those people unless there’s a project like this. I don’t have those times of vulnerability without food connecting us.
Our Favorite Recipes
In Pennsylvania, you have to be VERY careful with how often you throw around the word “best”. Everyone has a mother or grandmother that makes the “best” chicken pot pie or macaroni n’ cheese or broccoli casserole or pork sandwich. Food is a staple of Pennsylvania.
Everyone that comes to glean are lovers of food. When you’re around food, it’s so interesting how your conversations will naturally be about food. If you’re around apples, you talk about caramel apples at the fair or apple pies on Fourth of July. If you’re around pumpkins, you talk about Halloween, carving them, baking pumpkin seeds with all kinds of spices. If you’re around kale, all the vegetarians will talk about how better kale chips are than the potato ones (they aren’t).
And finally, if you’re around squash, you talk about all the ways to make squash. My mom never really made squash for dinners, so I never really knew how. I was able to go on a glean with a few older people- all were from different walks of life. A Dominican woman and her daughter. A very old white woman, her son, and her granddaughter. An older Haitian man who volunteered (and sweated) a lot. And a few more. As we picked the butternut, acorn, honeynut, spaghetti, yellow, and zucchini squash we shared the little facts we knew about them. The older ones spoke of how to cut the different squashes, how to prepare them, and how to cook them. What dishes one could make from the squash, what spices to use, how different families use vegetables in their generational and cultural foods. When I make squash today for an afternoon snack, I still remember what they taught me. There were lots of those conversations over the different foods we picked throughout the harvest; where cultural dishes and recipes were spread and you were able to learn more about so much. The best gleans had all different people from all the cultural communities and neighborhoods tucked within our county. The love of food brought different people together.
“We had a volunteer named [Marcus]. We often had volunteers who fit the broad criteria of needing and receiving produce. We had a volunteer who regularly came to the produce stand who loved cooking, had a lot of experience with cooking, had moved from the South 20 years ago, still had a rich accent, was African American… obviously loved food and loved to cook. This volunteer would volunteer on smaller gleans, farm visits, picking up produce from a farm, and helping out anyway they could. We ended up sharing food and sharing recipes. One day, this volunteer, his daughter-in-law, that daughter-in-laws daughter (so the three generations of family) and another African American frequent volunteer and another working class woman and myself all went on a smaller glean. So, Marcus, one way he shows his affection and love, is through cooking for others. So the morning of that volunteer event, he brought fresh breakfast and pie, and brought it along to go and pick fresh peaches, nectarines, and corn. And then we went back to the main offices and Marcus’s family made us homemade fried chicken for lunch. It was just a cool example of multiple generations coming together. This family are the people who, in the way the non-profit describes them in a binary way, should be more so receiving the food then collecting it or giving their own cooked food away. Marcus and his family were more so teaching us more than I was teaching them, and was really showing their appreciation as well to myself and other workers with the village meal. Different class backgrounds and generations come together a lot and this was just one neat example of it happening. Gleaning breaks down a lot of assumed barriers that exist between people.”
“During gleans, sometimes, when we would be gleaning fruits and vegetables that not everyone was aware of, I would take the time to go over how to cook them or invite others to share their own recipes if they had any. I always thought it was really cool letting people take home some of the picked food, like the different kinds of kale, so they could cook it in a way that a co-volunteer told them about. And then report back to me about their experience, like with kale chips.”
“I come to the produce stand weekly. It’s always so nice to see an array of beautiful and fresh fruit and vegetables. The best thing is that it’s one less thing to worry about. When money is tight like in my household, there’s a lot of money going to a lot of places that you have to keep up with… and food is one of them. Having fresh food no longer be an issue is really great for me. The Gleaning Project has been tremendous. They’re trusting and reliable.”
-Produce stand regular and mother of a friend (mid 40s Black woman)
“Free fruit and vegetables stand that we had was unique, even to food projects similar to ours. It was not a means-tested system; there was not the requirement of income clarification or identification. We advertised it through community partners. We allowed for people in the surrounding area to decide for themselves whether they need the produce or not. And we were able to do that without any federal funding. I felt so lucky and fortunate to work for something like that; its values being so strong. Who are we to say on who is struggling or who needs this additional food or support? The income guidelines on the state or federal level still leave people out for whatever reason, especially immigrant people or people who make just over those invisible income lines.”
“Helping out is really great. All the farmers nearby in the town are a part of it. Franklin County is huge- from Chambersburg, Waynesboro, Shippensburg, and Greencastle. Our goal is always to feed as many people as possible. We never want the food we grow to go to waste. We try our hardest for that not to happen. Organizations like the Gleaning Project turn that possibility into a reality. I know I can speak for all the food growers in the area when I say we are proud to be a part of something.”
-Local Potato Farmer and Family Friend
The People You May Meet
You start seeing the holes in society as you grow older. You can become cynical in systems and in people a part of them. However, there’s small moments that can make you become hopeful again; and those moments come from the people you meet. I didn’t know that the Gleaning Project, after four years of being a small part of it, would give me so much hope for society and my town.
I remember gleaning with a few boys down the neighborhood. I remember them laughing at the stretches we would do before we started that evening’s glean. The first stretch would be to reach high in the sky like you’re picking apples or lemons in the trees. The second stretch would be to stretch side to side, like picking strawberries and blueberries from vines on either side of you. The third stretch would be keeping your back as straight as you can, and reaching down like your collecting kale or peas. The laughter they had was contagious and whenever I do stretches nowadays, I still remember the foods and the volunteering that I was a part of.
I remember a father teaching his son about tomatoes and onions. I listened in on the conversation; as the dad talked about how their family lives sustainable at home to be environmentally friendly and save money. They had their own garden in their backyard, so the dad was telling his kid about the importance of leaves, roots, soil, water, sunlight. What’s the best way to grow them. Where, how far into the ground, what soil to use. Telling his child about composting and that importance as well. Passing on knowledge is incredibly significant.
These people you meet. The stories you are told and then share. The memories you have. They’ll stay with you.
“Humans, by nature, are quite social. Rejecting the individualism of American culture is good. We live in an economic system that benefits the most when we think of ourselves as individuals and make individual purchasing decisions. There are dynamics of our economy and culture that push us to move away from community and think of ourselves as individuals, and that is against human nature. Humans are innately social beings and when we get back to that, we can find a lot of success and healthiness.”
“The Gleaning Project was unlike other non-profit programs because it combined a wide variety of people from all walks of life and of the political spectrum. So you have people who are fairly far right that supported the program because of them supporting local farmers and agricultural systems. We had all kinds of farmers- more organic farmers, farmers that were more conventional (using pesticides), smaller scale gardener farmers, Mennonite farmers, all types of agriculture producers. We then had people who were more interested in the environmental effects; we had people that knew that food waste was a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (40% of food in the US is wasted and 20% is from the agriculture sector). We had people who were interested in helping out families; knowing that lots went to children that needed it like those in the Boys and Girls Clubs. We also had people come who were doing court ordered community service. Not every non-profit allows this, so it was a unique way to gain more helping hands. Even after their hours were over, they would continue to help. Getting all of these different perspectives to (just) pick apples was amazing to see.”
-Liz, answering “who were the types of people that volunteered?”
Reflection and Onward
It’s a good feeling to be back home. Philadelphia is beautiful, bustling, and beyond what I envisioned it to be four years ago. But sometimes, I do miss my small town. As I’ve grown older, I’ve frequently looked back at the memories I hold dear to my heart. And gleaning has always been one of them. Environmental studies is my major now and I want to have a career in helping others and the environment as a whole. And I really believe my passions started with this project. It instilled in me importance, love for community, and a sense of what I want to do with my life.
I went home recently to help at some of the first gleans of the season. Afterwards, I looked out into the fields and took it all in. The sights, smells, and sounds were still the same as I’d left them. The memories become clearer. This place was my escape. And I hope I never forget that. The great rush I feel when I am around the community, picking food for the less fortunate, is really, really good. I know that that rush will drive me to keep looking to help out at projects like these anywhere I end up.
“I’ve been in this town a long, long time. It’s quite easy to feel isolated in it. Especially now, during COVID, it’s been hard not to feel that sense of being alone again. But going to events that the Gleaning Project and other organizations put on here in Chambersburg allows me not to feel that isolation again. Rather I feel that support that a community can bring. The sense of belonging.”
-Frequent Volunteer (60-year-old white woman)
Any photographs that do not belong to Evan Shreffler have been reproduced with permission from The Gleaning Project.