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Senior Gleaners. Volunteer group helps feed the hungry with fruits (and vegetables) of its labor

It's 8 a.m. and the warehouse is bustling. Forklifts move huge wooden crates of fruits and vegetables from storage areas to be sorted for distribution. A fleet of trucks rolls out to pick up merchandise. Secretaries in the front office prepare to type letters and answer phones. Not an unusual sight across America - yet this warehouse and these workers are unique. Senior Gleaners Inc., a nonprofit organization located in Sacramento, Calif., helps feed the hungry with labor from volunteers over the age of 50.

The idea was conceived 11 years ago during a casual conversation among a group of senior citizens. They were wondering why there was so much hunger in the community when a good portion of the crops in the fields surrounding the city were left to rot. They began contacting farmers, requesting to glean their fields after harvesting.

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``We used to work out of a member's house,'' says Carl Schultz, recalling the organization's early days. He originally joined when a newspaper ad soliciting members caught his eye. ``It was a great idea,'' he says.

Today, with 2,000 plus members, Senior Gleaners works out of two warehouses on 3.6 acres leased from the city of Sacramento for $10 a year. The business community generously donates needed equipment, and fund-raising activities help meet monthly operating costs. The group's efforts feed about 63,000 people each month. During the peak harvest season, it is not unusual for members to have three gleaning jobs a day.

On a typical morning, volunteers meet shortly before six in a parking lot near the warehouse. Under the harsh glare of the street lights, they sign up to glean the crops available that day: watermelons, almonds, corn, tomatoes, peaches, apples, pears, etc. The crew chiefs shout out their wares like carnival barkers, trying to entice workers into their group. The bigger the crew, the quicker a job can be finished - an important point to remember here in the Sacramento valley, where the thermometer rises quickly most summer mornings.

No matter what the choice of produce, gleaning is hard work. One morning, a crew drove out to a pistachio orchard to pick tiny nuts from the matted grass beneath the trees. Another morning, a group crawled along the hard-packed earth, pulling tomatoes - left one day too long in the hot sun - from vines crushed beneath a harvester. ``We'll have to make salsa,'' one gleaner decided cheerfully. The Senior Gleaners are careful to pick only what the farmers offer.

In 1986, the group distributed 12 million pounds of food to 127 charities. Only about 65 percent of the food comes from the fields, though. Another major source is supermarkets, which donate dented canned goods, products in torn boxes, and items with expired expiration dates. Trucks carrying the gleaner logo (three women gleaning a field) drive to the back of participating grocery stores each day to retrieve this food that would otherwise go to waste. The food is taken back to the warehouse and sorted. Anything that has gone bad is tossed out. Food that is not perishable is often packed away for the slower winter months when there are fewer crops to glean.

At least 100 volunteers are needed at Gleaner headquarters Monday through Friday, not counting the members out in the fields. Food must be sorted, packed, and distributed when charities come to claim it. Crates for fruits and vegetables must be constructed. Trucks need to be tuned up or the oil changed. Floors must be swept. Retired carpenters, welders, mechanics, bookkeepers, secretaries, and others give their time whenever it is needed.

Despite the constant flux of volunteers, the operation manages to run smoothly. A president, elected every two years, oversees the entire operation. He is supported by two vice-presidents and a board of directors. The president, vice-presidents, a general foreman, chief crew leader, and transportation officer run things on a day-to-day basis. Crew leaders contact volunteers for gleaning each evening by telephone after farmers have made a commitment.

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No one is paid for his or her labor. In fact, each volunteer pays $3 a month in membership dues to help with operation costs. But they all receive a weekly food allotment, and are given a share of the produce they help glean for freezing and canning. Crew leaders, in charge of 35-40 people, make sure each member of their crew gets a bag of food for the week. And food is delivered to any inactive members on the list, although everyone must be able to work when they first join the organization.

Elizabeth Mills became aware of Senior Gleaners when she noticed her 80-year-old neighbor was receiving a bag of food every week.

``It was really nice food, too,'' she exclaims. ``A loaf of bread, canned goods, fresh fruits and vegetables.'' She discovered that her friend, although no longer able to participate, was still a member of the Senior Gleaners. She joined immediately. ``It really makes me proud to belong to such a giving organization,'' she says.

The Senior Gleaners do seem to have a lot of time and energy to give, and enthusiastically go out of their way to help people. They even took on the responsibility of distributing surplus government food, such as cheese and butter, to the poor in Sacramento County.

``We don't have the finances to reach down deep into our pockets individually,'' explains Ted Carty, a six-year veteran of the group. ``But collectively we can help many.''

Together, Senior Gleaners manages to keep thousands of people from going hungry, thus fulfilling its motto: ``The poor we shall always have with us, but why the hungry?''

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