photographs by Jane Schneider
On an April afternoon, folks crowd around produce stands at the Memphis Farmers Market downtown. For most shoppers, it’s a contest to find the best a farmer has to offer. But Tonia Anderson selects bruised strawberries and wilted lettuce, carefully arranging the produce in a basket.
None are picture-perfect. Still, Tonia calculates how much of the fruit can be used, noting the soft vegetables would make a nice puree for soup.
“Thanks for sharing your produce,” she says, waving to a farmer as she leaves.
Tonia has a fruitful plan for this nutritious bounty. Several volunteers from the Society of St. Andrew (SoSA) help load the produce into her mini-van. Then she’s off to United Methodist Neighborhood Center where donations will be shared with folks in the community who lack access and means to buy fresh food. On her next gleaning trip, she’ll collect food for Neighborhood Christian Centers, Ridgeway Head Start program, or one of 14 other agencies that accept deliveries from SoSA.
Tonia is reducing food waste and hunger through her work as SoSA’s West Tennessee gleaning coordinator. The organization carries the Old Testament concept of gleaning into the 21st century, asking farmers to donate produce to folks in need.
“Many people we serve are the working poor who may live in food deserts,” says Tonia. “They may have access to a convenience store but not to a full-service grocery. It all starts with farmers being generous with what they can give.”
In a single day last summer, Tonia and her volunteers collected 700 pounds of produce. “You feel immediately like you have done something tangible to make life better for someone,” she says. Last year, the organization gathered a total of 31,761 pounds of produce, the equivalent of 90,000 servings. Said one recipient,
“I’m going to be Superman when I get home because my family is going to be so excited by all this fresh food.”
While growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Tonia participated in SoSA’s Harvest of Hope mission retreat program one summer as a teen. She bagged potatoes at a large commercial farm after a mechanical harvester had passed through fields. That experience made a lasting impression.
After college, she enjoyed a 14-year teaching career, including five years at St. George’s Episcopal School as a high school Latin teacher.
The leap from teaching to gleaning came easily. Her seasonal position, from March through October, is spent building relationships with farmers and agencies, publicizing the organization’s mission, and training volunteers.
Tonia and her volunteers regularly visit area markets. They also collect from fields and orchards. “We arrive in the last hour of the market. Fifteen minutes before the market closes, we ask farmers if they have anything to share, weigh and record donations, and deliver them that day.”
Tonia finds her job rewarding. “I feel like God was guiding me into an area that I’d been thinking about by having everything lined up just right.” Several years ago, she decided to leave teaching for nonprofit work. She happened to catch The Big Waste on the Food Network and saw how chefs prepared a meal for 100 using food that was to be thrown out.
The program stirred her interest, and Tonia wondered if SoSA had any job opportunities in Tennessee.
“I left my contact info on the volunteer web form and received an email saying, ‘By the way, there’s a job opening if you know anyone who’s interested.’”
She maintains ties to teaching by tutoring students in Latin. Tonia moved here with her family seven years ago, when her husband took a job at St. George’s. Now Scott works from home in the college admissions field. Their sons, 10-year-old Ben and 7-year-old Sean, attend Germantown Elementary School. With Scott at home, the domestic front is covered when Tonia’s work pulls her away in the afternoon. If volunteers are slim, the boys help out.
“There were so many coincidences that led to my gleaning job,” says Tonia. “I’m happy to be doing something tangible with my time.”