According to FAO, one third of the total production of food in the world is wasted, an amount that tops 1,300 million Tons per year. This means that each European and North American throws to the wastebin between 95 and 115 kg/year, due to consuming habits, and that in Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central Asia, 6 to 11 kg are lost because of lack of distribution and refrigeration.
In a world where 870 million people do not have enough to eat, this reality is intolerable. That is why we have spoken with Gary McDonald, President of a Senior Gleaners, an NGO situated in Sacramento, California, who struggles to make his environment a bit more well-fed.
He explains that his most important mission is to provide the resources to collect, gather, preserve and transport food so that it can be given to the most needed people. McDonald, in spite of its controversial surname, has a special place in his heart for children: “For me it’s very important that children have enough to eat. It is so sad to think that children have to go to bed hungry. There is no excuse for that”, he says.
What does Senior Gleaners do?
Senior Gleaners is a food bank. We actually act like a food broker in that we bring in extra food from various food sources. Sometimes we receive donated food from farmers’ fields or orchards. Other times we receive food from local grocery stores that is near its’ expiration date. We then bring the food into our warehouse and store it either in coolers, freezers or if shelf stable, in our general warehouse. Local non-profit organizations in the area take it and give it to the low-income people that they serve. Rarely do we provide direct distribution to people in need.
How was the initiative born?
The first food bank started in the late 1960’s. A person living in Arizona saw a lot of food being thrown out and decided to do something about it. He was able to obtain the food that otherwise would have been wasted and gave it to needy people. Now they are many food banks in every state in the United States that work together to feed hungry people.
And how was Senior Gleaners born?
In 1976, there was a group of seniors in Sacramento California who saw that there was a lot of food left behind on the trees or in the fields; it was dropping to the ground and rotting in the people’s back yards and in the farmers’ fields. These seniors started gleaning the food because they were hungry themselves. Then they realized they had more food than what they could eat, so they created the first Sacramento area food bank to benefits other families. Even though the word ‘seniors’ is in our name, we don’t feed just seniors; we feed hungry people of all ages. ‘Gleaners’ is a word not often used any longer. It means to gather grain (or other food items) left behind by the first set of harvesters. It represents a secondary harvest.
Over the years Senior Gleaners grew into a very large food bank; but what is most surprising is they used 100% volunteers with no paid staff. It wasn’t until 2009 (33 years later) that they hired their first paid employee. Today they have only three full-time persons and one half-time staff person. The rest of the workers are volunteers, more than 450 volunteers. Together they run the daily operations: drive the trucks and forklifts, sort food, and work with the partner non-profit agencies, and so on.
Have you seen an increase in the needs since the Economic crisis?
Since the Economic crisis there have been many more people that are in need of food. They’ve lost their jobs and some have even lost their homes. Even if they find a part-time job, they just don’t have the amount of money they need to feed their families. Clearly, many more people need help on a monthly or weekly basis.
Would you tell me a bit more about you and your work?
I have worked in Senior Gleaners for a little more than one year; I previously worked at three other food banks located in Colorado Springs, Colorado and San Diego, California. I like working for food banks. It’s rewarding to know that people have enough food to eat. We can end hunger but we must all do our part.
What is best about your job?
For me it’s very important that children do not go to bed hungry, there is no excuse for that. They have done nothing wrong, and yet sometimes they go without the food they need for them to grow up healthy and strong so they suffer. Actually, it is important that everyone is well fed, but children have a special place in my heart.
What is the biggest challenge of your work?
The biggest challenge is that everything costs money: gasoline, insurance, electricity and more. Currently we are not receiving enough cash donations to cover our expenses so we are living off the cash reserves we have in the bank. Our lack of revenues is the biggest challenge we face right now. And the reason that is a growing problem is because people who used to give to us are now asking for food; they’ve lost their jobs. It’s a difficult situation for a lot more people. We are all struggling.
Where does money come from?
Most of our donations come from foundations mostly set up by wealthy families or large corporations that set aside a portion of their income to benefit the community. Then there are also private donors. Many of the people that give to us are far from rich but understand that it is important to help others so they contribute their hard earned money to us. On the flip side, many food-related businesses help us by giving us food rather than money.
Do you think this trend is contagious?
I believe people have good hearts all around the world; people generally want to help other people. Some people are greedy, but for the most part people want to help; they want to make sure that their donations, their money, or volunteer time benefits a good cause. Maybe they contribute to the betterment of society by helping their neighbors or donating to their church, or contribute to a charity like us. It is not important ‘how’ we help other people but it is important that we all contribute to our ability.