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Harvesting God's Bounty

Local organization gleans fields to feed the hungry.

On Thursday a youth group from Herndon United Methodist Church learned to pick kale and collard greens and in turn, feed the hungry. "This is kale!" said Tom Chandler, holding up several large leaves for demonstration as the youth group looked on. Chandler, the founder and Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network (MAGNET) had brought this latest group of volunteers to Phil Miller's farm in Clinton, Md. to harvest food for those in need. His organization for the past 16 years has been waging the war against hunger through the gleaning of fresh fruits and vegetables to go to the hungry through an extensive network of food banks, churches, agencies and MAGNET's own distribution points. Through this system they manage to provide 2 to 5 million pounds of fresh produce to the poor annually with the help of 8,000 volunteers working in 50 farms. Thursday's kale and collard greens went to a distribution point at Tubman Elementary school in northwest Washington, D.C.

MAGNET's method is gleaning, a concept inspired by the Old Testament, especially the Book of Ruth, where the food not taken in the commercial harvest is collected for the poor and hungry. Sometimes this results in farmers dedicating entire fields to the gleaners in order to provide good food to those in need. Miller contract grows for MAGNET, being paid for the food itself while the organization does the rest of the time and cost consuming work of harvesting, packing and distributing. This arrangement helps farmers like Miller keep the family farm alive. Miller also said that "The people eating this would eat good stuff, not rotten" because of his provision of a fresh field of produce that is perfectly suitable for the market instead of the left over crop.

FOR CHANDLER, leading this battle is an all consuming effort requiring him to work 100-120 hours a week, as a volunteer. He credits everything he does and accomplishes to God saying, "Only God is in charge of this whole thing". His office manager, Hope Price, calls him the "do-it-all man" referring to his non-stop schedule. Despite two new hired staff she doubts it will make a dent in his working time. However this enthusiasm and dedication is found all through the organization. Vicky Yelton, pastor of Ingleside Church of God in Mount Vernon and Price's aunt, for years has led her small congregation on a tireless crusade to serve the poor, especially along the Route 1 corridor. "You name it, we did it" she said of her church's involvement with MAGNET and Second Harvest. Yelton only dropped her work down to an as-need basis because the load was becoming overwhelming-her conviction in her mission has not abated in the least.

"We do have poverty in Fairfax County. We do have homeless in Fairfax County," Yelton said, explaining her dedication, born of her own past history and ministry, for serving this community. Chandler agrees, citing the various pockets of poverty throughout suburbia that may total even more than those found in the city. The need of these people, especially for food, is immense. So is, however, the amount of food available. "If we picked everything that was left over from commercial farming there would be enough food to feed everyone, there would be no need for anyone to be hungry," he said astounded at just how much goes to waste that could instead be alleviating hunger.

The impact of making this food available is felt by those who have been able to watch the distribution of it. "They run out of the trailers to get the food," Yelton said, recalling her regular distribution of food and donated bread to the local Woodley Hills trailer park, home to many low income families and fixed-income elderly. Chandler's son, Michael Zimmerman, also of the Mount Vernon area and in charge of much of MAGNET's technology, remembers just how grateful people are to receive the food, including watching as a woman began to cry at one distribution. The volunteers cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting fresh produce to the poor and the difference this makes to their overall health and well-being. Yelton has countless stories of seeing just how little food so many have and the look especially on the faces of children and elderly when they ask "Can I really have this?" It is one of MAGNET's greatest struggles to make the case to agencies to accept their food as many are not equipped with the refrigeration facilities necessary to handle it.

Chandler, who still calls Wesley United Methodist Church in Mount Vernon his home parish despite now residing in Maryland, began MAGNET when the Society of St. Andrew, also fighting hunger through gleaning and food collection, left the area in 1993. Inspired by his work with St. Andrew and his own ministries he carried on the mission, eventually creating a network of farms, volunteers, and agencies stretching from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia. The Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB) is one of their main partners and through this organization MAGNET can do the majority of its distribution, especially in Baltimore and the greater Washington area. MAGNET also supplies a good deal of the food for CAFB's Northern Virginia branch.

The veritable army of volunteers that come out every season is for Chandler one of the programs greatest strengths. People not only help the hungry but by working side-by-side with others from different religions, classes, traditions, ages and races the barriers are broken down. They come from churches, youth groups, civic organizations like 4H and Urban Hands, Future Farmers of America, schools, scout troupes and recruited volunteers from all walks of life imaginable. Many of the staff volunteers such as Garrett Hutsko, Chief Information Officer and general assistant to Chandler, recruit from their own churches and families. Hutsko said that he has gathered a regular group from his own Mount Vernon church of Washington Farm United Methodist to go along with him on the gleans. His own enthusiasm is infectious when he describes the work of the organization and what it has accomplished.

DESPITE A DECLINE in recent years in the number of volunteers and difficulties in funding, MAGNET is continuing its work and is rebuilding itself. The organization is constantly fighting for grants and funding. "Tom is overwhelmed with trying to get grants," Velton said in reference to Chandler's appeals on Capital Hill and to large organizations. MAGNET received a major USDA grant that focuses a great deal of work to Maryland, but they are hoping to be able to branch out in the same way in Virginia. However they do supply a good deal of the food to the CAFB's Northern Virginia branch.

Rebuilding also comes in the form of new projects, such as a proposed farm store, and continuing to find new farms. A reason for smaller numbers of volunteers, Chandler said, is that the farms are so far out from the main urban areas. One of his goals is to get farms within an hour's drive for most of his volunteers to enable even more to come out and glean. Zimmerman and Hutsko are also engaged in updating MAGNET's computer systems, working to build a full database to replace and manage the mountains of paperwork that the organization needs to keep their records straight and up-to-date. Zimmerman hopes to acquire a portable computer with wireless, similar to that used by UPS to cut down on the paperwork created at the gleaning sites.

Unexpected windfalls in the form of donated equipment, funds and even full fields are also aiding the revitalization of the program. The enthusiasm of volunteers like Hutsko and Chandler is as seemingly endless as the importance of what they do. By providing food to the needy, educating low income families in nutrition and taking what the USDA calls "food security" to a new level, MAGNET hopes to effectively fight the battle against hunger and break the cycle of poverty. As Yelton said, "This is what it is all about, changing a life."