A harvest of fresh food
When Laura Ann Carroll answers her phone, she sometimes hears the familiar voice of a woman she's never met.
These calls usually bring good news, and within minutes Carroll musters a team of 25 or more to represent Olive Branch AME Church in a local farm field. It's part of a project called Fields to Families, a nonprofit organization created to help feed the Lowcountry hungry by sending volunteer harvesters out to pick leftover produce donated by farmers.
At the other end of the phone line, Jacki Baer sits in front of her computer, organizing the operation. She's served as the director of Fields to Families for two years. When she and eight other community members recognized the hunger problem, they set out to help solve it.
It started at a local farmers market, when a stranger approached Baer, who was collecting food for area nonprofits to distribute. "Where were you when I needed you?" he asked. "They (a local soup kitchen) filled my stomach, but I ate canned food, boxed food — stuff that was not fresh."
And that's all it took.
The fledgling organization jumped through the necessary legal hoops in record time, and when Baer sent a lengthy application to the Internal Revenue Service to obtain nonprofit status in January, the group gained approval in the same month.
The pool of volunteers started small, and Baer spent a lot of her time recruiting, but today it isn't uncommon for her to receive 40 to 50 e-mails a day from people interested in picking vegetables.
"My list is so unwieldy that I'm sending e-mails to people two years ago who thought they might want to glean when they first started," Baer says. "It has increased during this economy, I have noticed. I was talking with someone, and he said maybe it's because people can't give money, so they're trying to give something else."
Once picked, produce is shipped by volunteer deliverers to soup kitchens and shelters across the Greater Charleston area. Robert Cochran, the daytime manager for Star Gospel Mission, said Fields to Families delivers 40 to 45 pounds of fresh produce to his Meeting Street location each week.
"They bring in fresh fruit and vegetables for us and it helps a lot because we're a small mission with a small budget," Cochran said. "And we use the leftovers in the compost pile we have out back for our herb garden. Nothing gets wasted."
A farmer's perspective
For farmer Brock White, growing fresh fruits and vegetables is life. He maintains the 750-acre Boone Hall Farms plantation in Mount Pleasant, a site that recently affiliated with Fields to Families.
"Every field, at some point, becomes unprofitable," White says. "And as a farmer, it took Jacki about five minutes to convince me. Our involvement as a donor is just about to hit full stride. We've got some cantaloupes over here that we're just about ready to turn loose."
White also sits on the Fields to Families board of directors, alongside his wife, Brooke White. Together, they help manage the 10 to 15 volunteers who appear at Boone Hall Farms each week.
"It's an interesting mix," Brock White says. "I believe we have about 250 volunteers now, and they come in all different shapes and sizes."
White said the work is easy to do and easy for schedules. He's met workout partners who decided to skip the gym, mothers wanting to spend time with their children in the outdoors, even people who show up to volunteer directly from work.
Far and wide
Lowcountry residents aren't the only people interested in volunteer harvesting. After several phone calls, Baer helped a group from Walnut Grove Baptist Church in Mechanicsville, Va., travel to Charleston to offer more helping hands.
Stephanie Alexander, 15, traveled from Virginia with the group. In past years, church members have served multiweek missions in North Carolina and Georgia. They usually build houses with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, she says.
"Mostly we just work with kids, but this is our first time branching out."
She's wearing denim shorts, a red tank top and mud up to her elbows. "Lots of bugs, lots of sweat — and aches," she says. "It's fun, though, and it makes you feel good helping other people."
The out-of-state group volunteered at Rosebank Farms on Johns Island, where Sidi Limehouse grows produce in hopes of selling it across the United States. Fields to Families contacted him when the group first started. Limehouse said he hates seeing food go to waste, and today he helps direct groups of volunteers when they arrive on his farm.
He watches as Stephanie and the rest of her group pick the leftovers from his collard patches.
"It's like the collards have a few wormholes, and it's just not up to Yankee standards," Limehouse says. "It's just a wormhole — it's perfectly good to eat."
So when Laura Ann Carroll gets a call from Jacki Baer at Olive Branch AME, she knows what to do. She recognizes the need for fresh produce because for the past 2 1/2 years, she's helped work the food pantry and soup kitchen affiliated with the 1,800-member Mount Pleasant church.
For Carroll, the opportunity Fields to Families offers is twofold. While it allows her to help her neighbors in need, it also bears religious weight as well.
"I don't want to be too pseudo-super-spiritual, but the Earth is God," she says. "And I want to know I have a part that is something bigger than myself. Even though we put the seeds into the earth to plant, it's all a part of God, and I feel even more drawn to him knowing that I'm a part of that."