Fields of gold

Levi has never picked leeks before. Neither has
Sharon. For that matter neither has Mark Eilim, who
has picked just about everything else.

Fortunately, though, food rescue is easy. With a
controlled tug and a light fold of the onion-like
vegetable’s long green leaves, Eilim and a handful of
college-age Americans are on their way to a successful
shift of leek farming.

The students, who are here as part of a three-month
Masa program called Go Galilee, in which they
volunteer to teach English to Jewish and Arab kids
near Haifa, have joined Eilim for a taste of a unique
volunteer effort to provide food to the hungry. Not
based on writing checks or canned food drives, Table
to Table’s Project Leket has volunteers visit farms
and pick produce that might otherwise go to waste.

It’s an idea that has caught on quickly, with a
lengthy roster of regular volunteers, including groups
from birthright, Young Judaea, UJA missions, IDF
units, students in the Perah community service program
and more. In addition, companies such as Intel,
Microsoft, Applied Materials and HP are frequent
visitors to fields in Table to Table’s network. Some
companies, says Eilim, who coordinates Project Leket,
send new groups of workers every month.

Sharon’s response is typical. After just a few minutes
of hand-dirtying work in the fragrant fields, the
environmental studies and social work student from New
York is eagerly stacking her pile of leeks.

‘I feel great knowing that this is going to people who
need it,’ she says. ‘The difference that you make
doing this is so tangible… I’m really inspired!’

To make sure that volunteers come away with at least
as much inspiration as perspiration, Table to Table
tries to limit the picking sessions to about an hour.

‘We want to keep it an enjoyable experience,’ Eilim
says. ‘We want to leave them wanting to come back for
more.’

With alarming findings about poverty and hunger
surfacing all the time – according to the latest
estimates, as many as one-fourth of Israelis are poor,
and one-fifth of schoolchildren go hungry – the work
of charitable organizations is vital to alleviate
suffering throughout the country. Among the more than
100 different organizations that seek to treat the
problem, Table to Table stands out because it makes
use of a resource that already exists. Gleaning the
fields on behalf of the poor, harking back as it does
to Deuteronomy and the Book of Ruth, adds another
emotional layer to the practice of charity.

Table to Table was established in 2003 because Joseph
Gitler, who had recently made aliya from New York, was
shocked by the amount of food at catered events that
went to waste. He started working with caterers to
collect excess meals for charitable organizations,
driving around at night to pick up the food from
events halls and delivering it to soup kitchens and
food banks. Pelephone and other companies soon joined
the effort, contributing excess food from their
cafeterias, and the whole thing took off. Within a
year, Table to Table was providing 5,000 meals a week.

FOUR YEARS later, its operations are much larger. With
more than a dozen full-time employees and hundreds of
regular volunteers, the organization now provides some
12,000 meals a week from its collections from caterers
and corporate cafeterias. A separate volunteer-based
program provides more than 1,000 subsidized sandwiches
to schoolchildren every day.

Project Leket (‘gathering’), which is less than three
years old, has created even bigger numbers: Its
on-site volunteer picking sessions collect anywhere
from 10 tons to 40 tons of produce a day, some 1,500
tons over the course of a year.

Those numbers are born not only of a spirit of
volunteerism and charity, but of the fickle nature of
farming.

Sometimes the price of a particular fruit or vegetable
drops so low by the time the crop is ripe that picking
it would cost more than the farmer’s expected return
on its sale. In such a case, the farmer usually lets
the crop – although the produce is perfectly edible –
wither.

Another situation in which Project Leket steps in is
when part of a crop is ruined. When this happens,
farmers can apply for compensation from the government
for the loss of their crops – but once they do, they
are prohibited from picking the otherwise healthy
produce. In normal circumstances, this food would go
to waste.

Also, according to Table to Table, 1.2 tons of edible
produce is destroyed every year simply because of
cosmetic flaws – meaning it is either too small or too
large for sale at supermarkets, has an unusual shape
or has superficial imperfections. Project Leket’s goal
is to rescue this food and bring it to those who need
it. The initiative was born, in fact, of such a
situation.

In 2004, a persimmon farmer who heard about Table to
Table called to say he would gladly donate plenty of
the orange fruit, if volunteers would come collect
them.

‘There were thousands of them waiting for us, strewn
all over the ground,’ Eilim recalls. ‘Apparently, it
is bad to let persimmons stay on the tree, so any
fruit that is too large or too small to sell is picked
and left on the ground. We came away with over 30 tons
of persimmons!’

Eilim, who had recently made aliya from South Africa
(‘with absolutely no clue about farming,’ he admits)
and had been working for Table to Table as a driver on
food pick-up runs, was suddenly tasked with expanding
the organization’s activities to include the rescue of
fresh produce. Heading to a national farmers’
exhibition, he set up a table – not to offer produce,
but to ask for it. Farmers started signing up to
inform Table to Table when they had excess produce,
and Project Leket was on a roll.

‘So in a way, the idea kind of found us,’ says Eilim.
‘It’s like it fell from heaven.’

PROJECT LEKET brings volunteers to fields all over the
country, but the ones visited most often are located
in the Coastal Plain near Tel Aviv. The field where
the Go Galilee volunteers are picking leeks is part of
an undeveloped plot of land just outside Rehovot that
belongs to Sandy Colb, a wealthy patent attorney who
made aliya from the United States nearly 35 years ago.
After years in which he and his wife, gardening
hobbyists who long ago started giving away their
leftover vegetables, he has purchased several plots
with the specific purpose of farming them and donating
all the produce to charity. Today he employs dozens of
workers to keep a carnival of produce – cabbages,
onions, oranges, clementines, avocados, potatoes,
sunflowers, carrots, zucchinis, kohlrabi, peppers,
radishes and more – growing so that volunteers can
harvest them for a number of food charity
organizations.

Colb’s relationship with Table to Table, however, is
significant; recently, he doubled the size of his
holdings to 500 dunams (125 acres), on the condition
that Project Leket would constantly provide volunteer
groups to pick the produce. Eilim juggles requests
from groups who want to help, fitting them into open
time slots and explaining how to do the work.

‘[Colb] makes sure that the fruits and vegetables
planted are easy for volunteers to pick,’ says Eilim.
‘You wouldn’t want people who didn’t know their way
around a farm to come and accidentally trample a whole
bunch of tomatoes.’

Volunteers come in all ages, from schoolchildren to
pensioners who are looking to remain productive in
their retirement. Project Leket even hosts bar and bat
mitzva parties, Eilim says.

‘It’s a pretty good deal,’ he remarks. ‘You get a free
place to host your party, and the kids love being
outside. Besides, you get to celebrate a mitzva by
actually doing a mitzva.’

Walking through rows of fennel, with their feathery
leaves waving in the breeze, it is easy to imagine how
uplifting it can be to harvest fresh produce for those
who need it. It’s easy, that is, to understand why
volunteers often tell Eilim they feel they have gotten
more out of the experience than the hour or so of work
they put into it.

‘For me, the best thing has been seeing
underprivileged kids come here and get excited about
helping others,’ says Eilim. ‘I remember one
15-year-old boy in particular who just lit up. As we
were working in the fields together he said to me,
‘You know, I’m so used to receiving. It’s an amazing
feeling to finally be giving.’

‘We don’t realize, that there are some children in
this country who, in 15 years, have never been in a
position to give to others. This project gives them
that opportunity.’

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One Response

  1. […] (Last year, I visited with Table to Table and joined a Project Leket trip to the same fields. Interestingly enough, the harvest on that occassion was also leeks. You can read more about that experience, and about the organization, here.) […]

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