Volunteers Harvest 42 Pounds of Berries From LP Field Shrubs To Feed the Needy

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Until a few days ago, I had never heard of a serviceberry. But apparently this is a very tasty red berry native to North America (including Tennessee), and the bush that yields the berries is a popular landscaping plant.

In fact, a bunch of serviceberry shrubs are part of the landscaping outside LP Field. A couple weeks ago, Lynette Johnson, director of the Tennessee office of the hunger-fighting agency the Society of St. Andrew, noticed ripe berries on the bushes while attending Mayor Karl Dean's Field Day on May 5 at the stadium.

They were berries ripe for gleaning, you see. And that's what the Society of St. Andrew does. Here's how they describe their work as a nonprofit:

"Since 1983, the Society of St. Andrew has salvaged fresh, nutritious produce from American farms — produce that otherwise would be left to rot — and delivered it to agencies across the nation that serve the poor."

Basically, wherever there are fresh fruits and vegetables going to waste, the group tries to swoop in and rescue the food, giving it to organizations that feed the needy. It's called the gleaning network. Tomorrow, in fact Nashville volunteers will receive a donation of 40,000 pounds of sweet potatoes. And you can help! But more on that later.

So Johnson spotted the serviceberries, contacted the general manager of LP Field on Monday, and by Tuesday morning volunteers were harvesting ripe, juicy berries. (Also known as shadberries, they supposedly taste a bit like blueberries. But better, according to Johnson. And richer in minerals and antioxidants. And the edible seed has an almond aftertaste.)

The volunteers scored 42 pounds of the little red orbs before departing, hoping to return later. Alas, the birds took the rest. I guess it's their due.

But nonetheless, two agencies got bucketloads of berries: The Nashville Food Project got 30 pounds, and the Community Care Fellowship got 12 pounds.

The Nashville Food Project's Tallu Schuyler Quinn told me they took the berries, combined them with free peaches gleaned at the Nashville Farmers' Market, eggs donated by Willow Farm and other donated or purchased ingredients and served peach-berry crumble to 115 people who live in weekly-rate motels at the intersection of Dickerson Pike and Trinity Lane.

The cost of the ingredients to feed 115 people dessert: just $3.24, which works out to about $0.03 per serving. (The folks were also served a full, healthy meal, with chicken, rosemary mashed potatoes, collards, chard and cornbread, according to Ann Sale, the Nashville Food Project's meal coordinator. Total meal cost was $36.32, or 32 cents per meal.)

Gleaning works. Johnson, her office's program coordinator Linda Tozer and other volunteers continually visit the Nashville Farmers' Market and pick up what sometimes amounts to hundreds of pounds of excess produce a week that the farmers can't sell for cosmetic reasons. The fruits and veggies then go to soup kitchens and other agencies that feed the poor.

But the motherlode of national donations is a 6.3 million pounds of sweet potatoes from a farmer in North Carolina. And a bunch of those taters are headed here.

Nashville's portion of the sweet potatoes, 40,000 pounds, will be processed by volunteers tomorrow, Saturday, May 19, from 8 to 11 a.m. at Hillcrest United Methodist Church. It takes a lot of hands to package that many potatoes for distribution to agency. Tozer says if you'd like to help, feel free to stop by and see how the work is going.

And if you want more information about the Society of St. Andrew, visit endhunger.org. Johnson and Tozer work for the regional office, which covers Tennessee. Johnson says it opened in August 2010 with an initial grant from the Tennessee Department of Health. Now all costs must be covered by donations from individuals, corporations and faith communities. Walmart chipped in $25,000.

The monetary donations are particular useful with logistics, allowing the agency to be quick and nimble about rescuing food. But volunteer elbow-grease is vital, too. I wish I'd gotten a taste of of just a couple of those serviceberries.

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