Jean Siers is the Charlotte Regional Gleaning Coordinator for the Society of St. Andrews. She has been in her position since 2012. The Society of St. Andrews works to bring people together harvesting and sharing healthy food, reduce food waste, and help to build communities by feeding neighbors in need. In this interview, Jean shares her experiences with gleaning, what types of things she gleans, how she gets the produce to people in need and to agencies, and where she hopes the organization can grow. Jean reflects on Charlotte’s food shed, the food deserts of Charlotte, and how organizations can better work together to eliminate hunger in Charlotte.
|0:00:17||Introduction/ Biography of Jean|
|0:00:52||Day to Day|
|0:02:18||Day of Gleaning|
|0:06:37||How to Glean|
|0:09:09||How find who needsproduce and get to the people that need it|
|0:10:45||Food Needs for People in Charlotte|
|0:12:11||Farmer Benefit through Gleaning|
|0:13:41||Amount of produce able to glean last year|
|0:15:27||Farm Waste/Stringent Regulations on Food|
|0:17:06||Changes in Farmers/Farming|
|0:19:02||Characteristics of Farms that work with|
|0:19:52||Strengths and Challenges in Charlotte Farming- Ex. Barbee Farms|
|0:22:17||Weather affecting Gleaning|
|0:23:22||Strengths and Challenges of Gleaning in Charlotte|
|0:24:42||Steps to get gleaned food to agency/people|
|0:27:07||Improving getting food to hungry people|
|0:29:08||How to get better at getting product to people, growing organization|
|0:30:45||How closely tied to Society of Saint Andrews “corporate”|
|0:32:16||Vacations/Dealing with Responsibility and Burn-out of position|
|0:35:55||No government support/ don’t really work with government|
|0:36:47||Connection to Organizations/ Farming Associations|
|0:38:07||Advice to other organizations trying to feed people|
|0:40:02||Seniors don’t get food on weekends|
|0:41:07||Need there 24/7 but nonprofits can’t be there 24/7|
|0:42:29||Don’t pay farmers to glean|
|0:43:27||Gleaning meat products|
|0:44:27||Gleaning Live Tilapia|
|0:46:12||Connecting Live Tilapia with Refugee Community|
|0:49:07||Greater Charlotte Foodshed and Food Deserts|
|0:51:33||What things have other communities done that we could implement|
|0:54:25||Hope for the Future of Society of St. Andrews in the next 5-10 years|
|0:55:37||Characteristics of Volunteers|
|0:57:17||Biggest problem managing volunteer was distribution|
|0:58:51||Needs in Volunteer Base|
|1:00:37||Misconceptions of Gleaning/ Serving the People they Do|
>> Victoria Lance: So I am Victoria Lance and I’m interviewing [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE] off Park Road on March 27 of 2019. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, Jean?
>> Jean Sears: Sure. I am born and raised in northern Minnesota but I’ve lived in Charlotte for about 30 years, a little bit more.
And always been really active and involved in the community in a lot of ways. So we raised our son, he was long gone, and I was looking for a way to give back to the community, and got involved with the sight of St. Andrew. And I’ve been working for them for the last six years as the Charlotte area community coordinator.
>> Victoria Lance: So tell me a little bit about your day to day. What does being a community coordinator mean and how do you do it?
>> Jean Sears: It’s different every day which is one thing that I love about it. Usually in the summer time, a day can start like this, a farmer will call me and say we finished cleaning out three acres of tomatoes and there’s still lots left.
If you can get a group out here before Saturday, when we pull up the sticks and plow up the tomatoes, we can have as many as you want. So I will send out an email to, I have a database and about 2,000 volunteers. I send out an email through contact to those volunteers.
Looking for folks that can come help glean and also bring trucks, or SUVs, or some other vehicle that can help distribute. So over the next two or three days, those people respond. And out of those 2,000 volunteers, I’ll usually get maybe 15 or 20 who will be able to come on a specific day at a specific time.
And our locations are usually within an hour of Charlotte. So sometimes that limits who can come as well, it’s just too far for some folks. So I spend that time keeping track of who is coming. And then I send them all of the information that they need so that they’ll be safe in the field.
I can keep track of who’s gonna be there, and where that food is going. And then on the day of the gleaning you get up bright and early, you drive to the field. Everybody shows up at the same time, we all go to the field together, and we go through field picking whatever it is, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, and wiggling for about two hours, and then there’s vehicles waiting.
We load those vehicles with the produce, and it goes directly from the fields to the agencies that we’re supporting, and the neighborhoods. So it’s not really farm-to-table for folks that wouldn’t have access to that food otherwise. So that’s one thing that I do burn a week. We’re also very busy doing what we call salvage gleanings, and those are when a farmer or a distributor has food that’s already harvested and often bought stuff and ready to market, and they just can’t sell it for some reason.
It could be an 800-pound bin of zucchini that are 10 inches long and they can only market what are seven and nine inches long. So the rest would get thrown out. So if they have something that’s perfectly edible and no place to sell it, they’ll call me and I’ll send folks out to get it.
And that’s, so again that’s where the relationship building comes in. Who’s got a truck and who’s in that area, and who can use 800 pounds of zucchini, and so I’m busy doing that. I’m busy trying to build relationships with farmers and spread the word about what we do and why we do it.
Work with them safely. Farmers are under a lot of constraints timewise. We try to be really cognizant of that, so that we’re not taking them away from the work that they have to do. So we work with it their schedule as much as we can, and we try to always show up and leave when we say we’re going to show up and leave.
And we try to let them know that we’re going to respect their farm because that’s their livelihood. So, and we’ll be safe in the fields which is very important to them because there’s liability issues that they need to be reassured that we’re covering that for them. So there’s a lot of relationship building that goes on in my job.
I actually spend a lot of time going to schools and churches and talking to folks about food waste and hunger, because people just don’t really realize what a huge issue both components of what I do are.
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah.
>> Jean Sears: It’s public relations, it’s relationship building, it’s actually physically working in the fields, distributing food.
So a day can be really interesting in my world, yes it can.
>> Victoria Lance: So how do you meet the farmers and kind of start building those relationships?
>> Jean Sears: We do it different ways. I inherited luckily a lot of farmers when I took the job, and they’ve been very supportive.
I would go to farmer’s markets and just visit with the farmers that I’m buying from, and let them who I am and what I do. My volunteers are often my best ambassadors, and they’ll do the same thing if they’re out on the country driving by a farm stand.
They’ll just stop and visit, buy a dozen ears of corn, and then say why did you do with the corn that you can’t sell? And we’ve got that way. Word of mouth from the other farmers has gotten they found farmers find us through other farmers. So they’ll ask what do you do with the corn you can’t sell?
And he’ll say, I call Jean Syers at Sights of Saint Andrew, and then they’ll call me. And also farmers find us through social media. I had one farmer say he had grapes, it was the end of the new pick season for his muscadines, and he went online, looked us up.
And he was a little uncertain, and so he looked us up on Facebook and said everyone just looks so happy, I thought, how could this be a bad thing?
>> Victoria Lance: [LAUGH]
>> Jean Sears: And so he called us and he harvested probably about 1000 pounds of grapes at his farm.
So it’s a matter of me going out and looking for them, and them coming and looking for me. And my volunteers being really good representatives for me as well, yeah.
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah, so how do you, cuz the farmers have already taken a lot of the marketable produce. How do you teach people how to pick what people can use and what do you leave behind?
>> Jean Sears: Great question. We do a little tutorial at the beginning of every gleaning and show people what we’re picking and how to pick it. And my farmers are for the most part really good, and they won’t tell me they’ve got a field of something that’s basically gonna end up inedible for us.
So we show them how to pick them, what’s an ear of corn that’s a good ear of corn. We show them how to pick tomatoes, and take the little top off, that little stem cap, cuz if you put that in a box with a bunch of other tomatoes with the little cap it’s gonna poke a hole in it and get the rest of them bad.
So we talk them through that. We let them know that, number one, folks will eat green tomatoes as fried green tomatoes or they’ll make relish or chow chow. And most green tomatoes will eventually ripen, so it’s okay to pick green tomatoes. So we do a little tutorial at the beginning of every gleaning, and just talk people through kind of a food safety of it, how to pick what’s good.
Because a lot of people really wanna save everything. And number one, if you save a tomato that has a bad spot on it, it’s gonna make its neighbors sad in about two days. That whole box is gonna go squishy. So we have to talk them through that, that it’s okay to leave stuff behind.
And also we wanna preserve as much as possible the dignity of the people that That we’re taking food to, and you don’t do that by showing up with a box of half rotten tomatoes or corn that’s got worms in it. We do that every time we go out to [INAUDIBLE] that’s just basically.
Now I have volunteers that work with me on a regular basis, supervisors, and so they’ll go out in the field as well and talk to people as they’re gleaning, do you have any questions? What do you need? And just work with them that way. So that’s kinda what we try to do.
>> Victoria Lance: How many supervisors do you have working right now?
>> Jean Sears: I’m really lucky I have about 20.
>> Victoria Lance: Okay, yeah.
>> Jean Sears: And some of them can help me once or twice a season. Some of them help me a couple of times a month during the busy time of the year.
So they’re wonderful volunteers, and really kind of a core group. Most of them distribute, [COUGH] excuse me. Most of them distribute as well, so, and not only come and help me run the gleanings, but load their cars and trucks, and take it [CROSSTALK] too. So they’re very dedicated folks.
>> Victoria Lance: So you do gleaning, and then immediately you take it to Loaves & Fishes, or the neighborhood people, things like that, the Bowl. How do you make those connections to find who needs it and get it to them?
>> Jean Sears: Again, I rely a lot on my volunteers, they’re usually very well-connected in their communities, and then I’m also active in that world.
So when Elisha Brewett started The Bulb I thought she’s going directly to neighborhoods with all this food. So for instance we get muscadine grapes, a lot of muscadine grapes in the fall. But agencies like Friendship Raisin have taken, they have seeds in them and they can’t send the products up to their customers with seeds in them.
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah.
>> Jean Sears: So then we start running into this wall of, well, if I can’t send it to soup kitchens because it’s too difficult for them to process, and I can’t send it to places like that. So Alicia was a fantastic contact. So I called her and I had met her a couple different things.
I didn’t know her really but I’d met her. So I called her and said would your folks love muscadines? And she said they would love muscadines. So it’s just a matter of kind of keeping those conversations going, those links open and just listening for where people might need things.
>> Victoria Lance: So what do you see as some of the biggest needs for people in Charlotte, food-wise?
>> Jean Sears: Food-wise? I think access is huge, that folks who are living in lower-income neighborhoods have access to kind of corner stores, which all have big signs on the window that’s say we accept snap benefits.
But those stores really don’t sell fresh food and I don’t think there’s really much debate that fresh produce is better for you than processed foods. But those folks in those neighborhood have limited access to that. And Charlotte really struggles with its transit system, making it easy for people to get from those neighborhoods easily to where they could buy better food.
So I think access, and that’s just, grocery stores don’t locate in those neighborhoods. People don’t have access to transportation to get to better food, and it’s really expensive for the most part. Fresh produce is more expensive than junk food. So it’s an access issue. Distance and money and [INAUDIBLE].
>> Victoria Lance: So going back to farmers a little bit, how did they benefit from [INAUDIBLE].
>> Jean Sears: They benefit most through just good will, and I hope good karma. There used to be a gleaning tax credit in North Carolina which was a pretty good deal for the farmers. That they would receive basically 10% of the value of the [INAUDIBLE] produce as a tax credit.
And probably 20,
>> Jean Sears: I started 2012, 2013 to 2014, the North Carolina legislature took away the delinquent tax credit in their tax of them all. So they still get a small tax credit from the federal government, and I think South Carolina might still have a gleaning tax credit.
But the monetary benefit for them it’s not great anymore, which is a shame, because they operate on very fine margins. So I think really, they do it because the farmers don’t raise food to waste it. And the ones that we work with have a really strong belief that if there’s hungry people in the community and they’ve fed everybody that they can feed, that are gonna pay them for it, they might as well let somebody else have that food.
So at this point, you just have to rely on their goodwill, for the most part.
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah, so how much produce and stuff do you tend to be able to glean, and get to those consumers in a given month, or year?
>> Jean Sears: Last year, in Charlotte, and I know this cuz I just updated my PowerPoint presentation, we did 650,000 gallons of produce in just our area.
And in North Carolina it’s 5.6 million
>> Victoria Lance: Wow.
>> Jean Sears: Which is a lot of food. And that includes both what we do in the fields, what we do salvage, and what we call large loads. Where we’ll get an entire 40,000 pound tractor trailer load of potatoes from warehouses down east that can’t sell them, they’re seconds, or whatever.
And, a church will sponsor that, or a school or whoever community. And was sponsored by helping offset our translocation costs. We’ll bring that truck load of produce to that agency, to that school or church or whatever it is. Drop off 40,000 pounds of food and they have volunteers bag up and divvy it out in the community.
So it’s a combination of large loads, salvage and [INAUDIBLE]. And then just what we go into the fields and glean, and that’s a pretty amazing number. We’ll go into a tomato field with 20 to 30 volunteers, and in a couple of hours we can pull out 3,000 pounds of tomatoes.
It’s really amazing, you know? And it’s not like we’re skilled workers, you know? We’re really lame for the most part, you know? We’re not, we don’t know what we’re doing. And we don’t do it efficiently. But that just gives you a small idea then of how much is out there if we’re able to save that.
Much a couple of hours.
>> Victoria Lance: I read an article recently that said that farms waste more than you could possibly imagine. I think they said most, usually 30% of everything that farms produce is nice, but they were saying 30% is really the market.
>> Jean Sears: Yeah, and it’s not I mean, it’s not on the farmers.
It’s that we have such stringent regulations mo what can be hard with Ed, there’s a really great pop. Recent study about just in North Carolina, the produce that’s wasted at the farm level and I think it was cabbage, I mean, it’s like if there was 275 pounds of cabbage per acre that was marketable, there was 3,000 pounds per acre that wasn’t marketable.
>> Victoria Lance: Isn’t that crazy?
>> Jean Sears: It was just crazy, and that’s because maybe the heads had split, or whatever and then there’s another level of that was inedible. So it’s not like they’re counting food that no one should be eating, there’s a lot of it that’s inedible for whatever reason.
But yeah, it’s an amazing amount of food that’s wasted at the farm level and the farmers, it’s not like they wanna waste that food. It’s just it doesn’t pay them to pay their workers to spend the time picking fruit that they can’t sell. That’s just crazy economics, so it’s not like the farmers are planting that, thinking this will be great to just discount they can only sell so much because it’s gotta be quick and easy.
>> Victoria Lance: Have you seen any changes in the people involved in agriculture or the crops or livestock that are raised throughout your time in living in Charlotte?
>> Jean Sears: Since I’ve only been doing it for about six years, probably not, I think there’s more I think there’s more smaller farms I’ve seen and that’s maybe just who’s calling me.
But I think statistically, you can look at the growth of smaller farms and organic farms and so there’s more of that going on, and I’ve been encouraged because I’ve seen a lot of younger farmers. And I don’t know, I know they say the average age of a farmer in the United States is 56 or 60, or something, which I don’t think is old but others might.
But I work with a lot of farmers that are probably in their 30s which is encouraging to me. There may be second or third generation on the farm and taking over and what I see them doing is really working hard to diversify what they’re raising. So, Barbee Farms that we work with up in Cabarrus County, they just plant this incredible range of produce and as soon as they’re finished with something they’re plowing it up and they’re putting something else into that.
So that they can always be offering this variety to people because this is what we demand is a lot of variety. And so I think the farmers have gotten more marketing, and have had to get more marketing savvy that way and I don’t know how much that’s changed since I’ve been doing it, but I think that’s really a trend with the farmers.
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah, I completely agree with that. How big are the farms that you usually glean from, like acreage wise, in units?
>> Jean Sears: Yeah, well I don’t know [LAUGH] I think Barbee Farms is maybe under 100 acres, I work with a farm in Union County, and I don’t know how much land they own, but I know they farm hundreds of acres.
And then I’ve worked with the little organic farm, we were gleaning is maybe three acres so Ii’s just really wide, it’s kind of whoever calls us.
>> Victoria Lance: So what do you think some of the strengths or challenges of farming in the Charlotte area, that you’ve seen?
>> Jean Sears: There’s so much development pressure, and I keep mentioning Barbee Farms cuz we do work with them so closely, but there’s a great story, and you can probably find it online.
When they were realigning Pitts School Road in Cabarrus County And the NCDOT was going to realign it directly through their farm, which is a Century Farm, meaning it’s been in the family for over 100 years. And it was going to cut off like with their houses and their processing areas here and the fields are here, the road was going to come right through the middle of it.
Meaning that they couldn’t get the food and it’s a busy road, so they wouldn’t be able to get their tractors across the road and all their processing equipment. So that was several years ago, long before I started, but there was a woman who was in my position, Marilyn Marks and she started a petition and a movement to save their farm because people just don’t see that as a valuable asset to the community.
It’s just like well it’s just land, what difference does it make but that’s land that’s feeding us and they were successful and stopped the road realignment move over to the side enough that it preserved their farm. But you know, not every farmer is that lucky and I think just the taxes, as houses start the spring up around you, the taxes go up for you.
It’s harder for you to get from field to field because you’re in the way of a million cars trying to get to their houses. So the development pressure is a huge, huge problem for the farmers in an urban area and if you wanna start farming, the land prices are just going to be prohibitive.
So, I think the development pressure is probably one of the largest thing, largest problems and it’s just tough being a farmer. I think the weather is more precarious now then it used to be, the extreme highs and lows and crazy wets that we get and rain, so I think that’s been a huge pressure on them as well.
>> Victoria Lance: So does the weather affect you all in any way?
>> Jean Sears: Yeah, yeah I have to tell people, a lot of folks will sign up for gleaning, like they’ll wanna bring their school group out or their church group or whatever and so they want us to glean on a specific date.
And I always tell them it’s dependent on crop availability and weather, because we can’t go into the fields if it’s wet or muddy, or whatever. So that affects us, and sometimes well crops will just get wiped out when the hurricanes, the zucchini and the yellow squash that we salvage glean in Union County.
When those hurricanes come through in the fall, it’ll just, when those winds are starting, it just pick up the plants and twists them up right out of the ground, because the plants are so big, or the water will wash them out. So If they have nothing to sell, we’ve got nothing to glean, so yeah, so we’re very weather dependent as well yeah.
>> Victoria Lance: So what do you think some of the strengths and challenges of gleaning, and then distributing in Charlotte or Lure are?
>> Jean Sears: Strengths are that we’re a big population center and, so it’s usually pretty easy to find places that can absorb the produce and give it out to people.
So, that’s a really helpful thing, I’ve got a lot of great volunteers and great connections with agencies. The challenge for us is reaching those outlying areas just because many don’t when there’s that much distance involved. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t hungry people there, it means that I don’t have volunteers that are driving to Alexander.
County or and it’s much more difficult to build the relationships that you have to build to know when agencies are open. When they can accept food, how much they can accept. It’s a pretty intricate amount of stuff that you have to work through to get a load of food to somebody.
So the biggest challenge for us is that our area is so large to the extent of the counties, that it’s tough to reach those outlying areas. That are just as in need of the food as Charlotte is.
>> Victoria Lance: So what are some of the steps that it takes to go clean this food I have to struggle to pay Loaves and Fishes?
Can you take it? How do you take it?
>> Jean Sears: Agencies like Loaves and Fishes, I’ll call them. You say, I’ve got to say the farmer calls me and he says, I have 800 pounds of zucchini, you can pick up a bin. Then I’ll call Loaves & Fishes and they have great staff there.
And I’ll say, if I can get a driver that can go out and pick it up, what days and times work for you? Because their schedule is really busy, they’re always sending trucks at pantries. So there’s not always somebody there to offload, the food for us. So there’s kind of a puzzle pieces together to when somebody going to be there can I get a driver at the right time to go pick up the food and get it to lots of fisher.
Which is under a time frame. So it’s just a matter of logistics and sometimes it works and sometimes I just have to call them and say, my driver could get it to you Tuesday, but not Wednesday, and there’s nobody there Tuesday to accept it so I’ll just have to send it somewhere else.
That’s just how it goes. And I try to keep track of, as much as possible, when agencies are open and when they can accept food. So that I’m not calling them and offering them things that they can’t take. Cuz that’s just teasing them. [INAUDIBLE] If you were open, you could have this.
Yeah, and so you do that. It’s the same process for everybody. It’s less complicated when it’s a sweet lady from Rowan County putting 200 pounds of tomatoes in her car that she’s taking to elderly folks in the church. I don’t have to have anything to do with that.
I know Ms. Hanny’s got it covered, and she’ll make sure those tomatoes get to people who need them. But so that kind of grassroots stuff is much easier for me, it’s harder for them, cuz they’re the ones doing the work, going door-to-door. But, working with the agencies, yeah, you really have to work with them, their time constraints and their manpower constraints and volunteer constraints as well.
>> Victoria Lance: So what are the some of the ways that you see that are there any breaks in that system, and how do you see maybe fixing some of those? What do you think we can do to improve getting the food to the hungry?
>> Jean Sears: There’s a lot of discussion, and I think it will be fruitful, that all the agencies dealing with hunger in Charlotte.
And there’s a lot of us, we just need to be more collaborative and more collegial, and Charlotte Food Policy Council is doing work around that. And we’re all trying to meet, and talk about ways that we can work together. So that we’re not duplicating what everybody is doing, and we know that we’re getting the food to the people that need it the most.
So, I truly think there will be some forward motion on that. It’s not like we’re all cut-throat and trying to elbow each other out of the way. It happens often that grant money is involved, that everybody needs to protect a certain amount of their turf, or feels like they do.
And so I’m really encouraged that the conversations towards more collaboration are moving forward. I think that’s gonna be huge.
>> Victoria Lance: So speaking of grants, you guys how are you funded? Do you get grants?
>> Jean Sears: Yeah kind of a combination of individual donors, faith communities, and then grants, so it’s a three [INAUDIBLE].
And then the bulk of what the value of what we I mean of comes from the donated produce, but, yeah, so for our bottom line Individual donors, churches, faith communities, and grants.
>> Victoria Lance: So what do you think is the best way to get this product on? And the produce and stuff onto the tables of the consumers and other people who need it.
Where can we grow? Could we, like farmers’ markets, or?
>> Jean Sears: We do connect with farmers’ markets. I have some pretty dedicated gleamers that go to the farmers’ markets every Saturday when the farmers markets are getting to shut down and gather produce. Yeah, I mean, I think there’s some easy ways we could grow and there’s some talk of shrinking our territories and hiring more of us because there’s up to a certain point.
I work 30 hours a week, but most people in my position work 15, you can only move so much food in 15 hours a week. So there’s some conversation around shrinking our territories and automatically goes up to Alexander County and Hickory. I don’t get up there very often and there’s lots of food up there and there’s lots of hungry people up there.
So if we could put a coordinator in Hickory, hang out then obviously I could focus more here and that person would focus there. So I think if for us to save more food than we’re saving and we’re saving a lot of food already but to save more, we’re gonna have to kind of rethink the model a little bit and get more people involved and more hours.
I mean, it’s just it’s all you can do. Hopefully, grants will support that because, obviously, the food is out there.
>> Victoria Lance: So how closely do you work with the Big Island people, and the Society of Saint Andrew people on kind of a regular basis?
>> Jean Sears: Big Island, not much at all, I don’t really have very much contact with them.
I work really closely with our Durham Office. And they’re very supportive in helping me however I need help. And my current boss is a Methodist minister as well, so he has great connections with agencies across the state, with volunteers across the state. So sometimes I’ll call them and say, I’ve got this, and I don’t know where to send it.
And he’ll say I know the perfect place. So I’m really lucky to have that kind of support. From our state office. But for the most part, we act as, we have to work very independently, just because the relationships that we build are our relationships. And when I’m out of town, if somebody calls and the answer the phone, they’re not going to know Loaves and Fishes schedule for when they can accept 800 pounds of Zucchini.
I know it, but they’re not gonna know it. So a lot of it just has to be independent work on the coordinator’s parts. But we’re lucky to have those supportive staff [INAUDIBLE].
>> Victoria Lance: So how does that work? Like if you go on vacation, what happens? Who takes over for you cuz you go on vacation?
>> Jean Sears: Nobody [LAUGH].
>> Victoria Lance: A farmer has need to give.
>> Jean Sears: Yeah. I try to never go on vacation or leave in the spring summer and fall. So we’re very vacation heavy in the winter. My husband I and we’ve grown to love cold weather hiking [LAUGH].
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah.
>> Jean Sears: So we’re gone, we try to travel when we know I’m not going to be busy.
Smartphones and iPads help a great deal. So that when I am gone, people can still call me ad I still have all my contacts on my phone and I can still do a little bit of my business while I’m gone. And then I just hope that the folks in Durham can cover for me.
Yeah it’s a tough position, and I think one thing that leads to burn out in my job because you feel such a sense of responsibility to your farmers who volunteers and your agencies because of those relationships. And when you’re not there, you know things will fall through the cracks.
And so I think there is really a tendency for people to not give themselves a break. And quite frankly, we don’t get paid enough to not give ourselves a break. It’s not like we’re doctors with beepers. But that’s the constant tension that we tend to never turn off completely, so-
>> Victoria Lance: So how do you deal with that during the busy times, how do you turn off and not burn out?
>> Jean Sears: I drink gin.
>> Victoria Lance: [LAUGH]
>> Jean Sears: Don’t put that in.
>> Victoria Lance: [LAUGH]
>> Jean Sears: You can’t, I mean, you have to just keep going. And so that’s why I said, my hours are average 30 hours a week.
So this time of year, typically, I’m working maybe 15 hours a week. But there’s weeks of the summer where it’s 40 and 50 hours, and that’s just what you have to do because it’s what’s there. And it’s not as bad as it sounds because most of the time, because I work from home.
So it does give me that flexibility that even if I’m working, I can still have a load of laundry in or I can be cooking something for dinner and then go back and answer the phone or whatever. So there’s enough flexibility built into it that I feel like I’m probably ruined for a real nine to five job at this point, you know?
Where I couldn’t I couldn’t say, we don’t have anything for dinner, and go throw something in the crockpot, and then get back to work. It takes five minutes to do that. So I survived the stress of that craziness by, you just have to embrace that the flexibility gives you a lot of time that you wouldn’t have if you were in a more structured job, yeah.
>> Victoria Lance: Kinda like use the moments you do.
>> Jean Sears: Yeah sort of like how a new mother always lays down to nap when the baby naps. When the phone stops ringing for crying out loud, go do the dishes.
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah [LAUGH].
>> Jean Sears: Because they gotta get done.
>> Jean Sears: My goodness, you have a lot of questions.
>> Victoria Lance: No no.
>> Jean Sears: Good [LAUGH].
>> Victoria Lance: They’re not all for you.
>> Jean Sears: [LAUGH] Good, good, good.
>> Victoria Lance: So,
>> Victoria Lance: Being kind of like a nonprofit organization, you get a lot of volunteer support, you get a little bit of community support, some grants. Do you have any kind of government support, local government support?
>> Jean Sears: No, no.
>> Victoria Lance: Do you work at all with the governments or local govenments?
>> Jean Sears: No, not really. No other than some of the, like a county extension agents are very supportive of us and will spread our name to the farmers that they work with. But yeah, other than county extension, I don’t think we’re really involved with anybody, yeah.
>> Victoria Lance: Do you belong to any farming organziations or anything like that to help build connections?
>> Jean Sears: I don’t belong to them, I go to a lot of events. In the winter is when most of those events are, so I’ll go to the Strawberry Growers Association. I go to the Blackberry Growers Association, they’re meetings just to talk to them and meet with them.
I don’t belong to the organizations, but I do participate in their meetings and those kindsa things, just to connect with them. I’m a member of the Food Policy Council here in Charlotte, but-
>> Victoria Lance: Do they ever bring you on for,
>> Victoria Lance: Educational types of things about how gleaning can work?
>> Jean Sears: No they never have, now I’m hurt [LAUGH].
>> Victoria Lance: Well I was thinking I interviewed a beekeeper, and so they’ll bring in there’s a vet, and they’re doing a medicine, and they’ll bring you in and do talks. It could be cool if you did like, well this is gleaning and it’s good, and it makes you feel good.
And we could get you connected to some of the farms that.
>> Jean Sears: All right, I’ll see what I can do. Thank you, this has been very fruitful so to speak [LAUGH].
>> Victoria Lance: I try.
>> Jean Sears: We cant.
>> Victoria Lance: So what advice would you give to other organizations, other gleaners, the nation area or even just other non profits trying to feed hungry people?
>> Jean Sears: I guess just know that there’s food out there and it’s all different kinds of food. Our ministry is fresh produce but there’s all kinds of food going to waste. Just pick a passion and go with it and our passion is fruits and vegetables. But, there’s enough food out there and enough hungry people that nothing should go to waste and no one should be hungry.
So I just say pick your passion and run with it. I think there’s a new organization, newer, that’s just started in Charlotte that is doing food rescue but for prepared food.
>> Victoria Lance: Okay.
>> Jean Sears: If restaurants or whatever have left over, they get that food and get it to people that need it.
That’s not my mission but that’s their’s. And I think you just, and I think there’s enough people out there who it’s worth it. We just have to find them, but people care. Especially if you can get the word out to them, people care that there’s food going to waste and people care very much that there’s hungry people.
In a society that looks this affluent, that there’s children going to bed hungry at night and seniors who don’t eat on the weekends because the soup kitchen’s not open on the weekends.
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah.
>> Jean Sears: And, that’s just not right. No, it’s not.
>> Victoria Lance: They should be able to eat any time.
>> Jean Sears: They should be able to eat any time because they raised all of us, and you know? You just hear the sad stories. There’s a soup kitchen in Huntersville, Angels and Sparrows Soup Kitchen. The woman who runs it was telling me that on Friday. And it’s mostly a lot of seniors will come, same families, but a lot of seniors cuz there’s some senior housing around them.
And she said on Fridays, she will see the seniors and they’ll eat like half their biscuit and then they take their napkin and they wrap up the other half because they won’t have enough to eat over the weekend. And she said, and I get teary just talking about this.
And so she said, I always try to say, let me wrap that up better for you. And I’ll take it back to the kitchen, and I’ll put a couple extra biscuits or something in it. So they have something to eat.
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah.
>> Jean Sears: But she said, you would not believe how hungry people are on Monday mornings.
So I just think no one should have to just be that hungry on Monday morning.
>> Victoria Lance: It’s crazy to think, cuz non-profit things I do work in, sometimes, somewhat normal business hours, where the people that work there, they want to go home. They want to be at home, and they’re not gonna work Saturdays and Sundays all the time, cuz that’s family time.
>> Jean Sears: Right, and people are still hungry then, but you can’t expect volunteers and poorly paid nonprofit staff to be there 24/7, but the need is there 24/7. And it’s kind of a system we’ve created by limiting how much people get with food stamps and different federally funded benefits where they could actually go and shop for what when they want when they can shop for it.
We’ve created this really complicated system where they know they can go to soup kitchen on Monday and get a meal but they have to go to St. Mark’s on Tuesday to get a meal. And if they want canned food they can go to Loaves and Fishes, but only X number of weeks in a given year.
And it’s just really crazy to make people of limited means try to cobble together food for their family with this incredibly complicated system when they have to get from place to place too with our crummy transit system, so yeah.
>> Victoria Lance: Do you ever pay farmers anything to plant?
>> Jean Sears: We don’t. We don’t. I know there’s some groups that do. And that’s just not our model. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that. It’s just not how we’ve ever operated. I don’t know if there’s places in North Carolina that do it, but I’ve heard California where they will go in and offer them $0.07 on the dollar for produce or whatever.
So the farmers get a little something back. And they’re getting fresh produce for really low prices. I don’t see anything wrong with that model, and we’ve always just worked on the model that it’s freely given and donated, and so we freely give it to other people.
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah.
>> Jean Sears: Yeah.
>> Victoria Lance: So do you know of any organizations that glean meat products or anything?
>> Jean Sears: I don’t, I don’t.
>> Victoria Lance: I don’t know if there are many, I wonder if that’s a thing.
>> Jean Sears: I think it’s a more difficult thing to move, just because Price’s chicken coop used to call us occasionally because, have you ever been to Price’s?
>> Victoria Lance: I haven’t.
>> Jean Sears: You need to go, you need to go. And they they cut all their own chicken for the fried chicken, which is phenomenal. But when they would miscut a piece they would throw it in a box, and freeze it. And then when they got a big box full, then they would call us, and we would usually just send that to Friendship Trays and they’d use them in meals.
But I think for a lot of agencies it’s just really hard to have the cooling system in place, and then to know I think that can be more fragile than produce.
>> Victoria Lance: It goes bad too.
>> Jean Sears: Yeah, it goes bad, and tomatoes and corn, you pretty well know when it’s gone bad, but meat, you worry about contamination and stuff.
So I’m sure there are places that do it. Nobody that I work with, other than our live tilapia. [LAUGH]
>> Victoria Lance: So how did you get into the live tilapia?
>> Jean Sears: That’s a very funny story. The young man who was working at, it’s called Astar farms, and he called Loaves and Fishes because, saw the fishes name, and asked them, do you accept fish?
And they were thinking like a pallet full of tuna or whatever, salmon. And they said, yeah, that would be great. And so they asked how many cans, or whatever. And he said, no, it’s still alive, and apparently the guy who answered the phone almost hung up on him.
Because the director at the time, who was a very very funny woman, she ran Loaves and Fishes for like 25 years, Beverly Howard, was on vacation. And apparently when she was on vacation she would call, like make prank phone calls to them, just to have fun with them while she wasn’t in the office.
And so they thought it was Beverly pranking them, so they almost hung up on him. And then they started asking him a few questions and it turned out it was this tilapia farm. And they said, well, there’s no way, we don’t have the structure in place, but if anyone could move that, you should call Jean.
And so he called me, and I said, well I’ll see what I can do. And the first couple of loads, I just sent my regular guys with trucks and they kind of did what we always do. Like, they would load the fish up in, and they had coolers, and they would load the fish into the coolers.
And then they would just go door to door and say hey, you want some tilapia? And so people got the fresh tilapia. And then we connected them with the refugee community because those folks are, they get a lot of donated food that’s donated bread and processed foods but that’s not what they eat in their diets.
And we knew the fresh tilapia was something that more so than a lot of more Americanized groups, they would know what to do with the fish. They actually live 45 minutes out of water, did you know that?
>> Victoria Lance: No.
>> Jean Sears: So that when that truck goes over by the airport, and picks it up and then brings it back to Central Avenue.
The fish are still flopping.
>> Victoria Lance: My goodness.
>> Jean Sears: Yeah, yeah. And they’re not freaked out by that, as a lot of who would be freaked out by a fish that was still flopping. And Marcy, who coordinates there, has sent me great pictures of them grilling the fish and they’ll grill the whole fish and eat it, it’s just very cool.
So that’s been a great connection.
>> Victoria Lance: Do they have freezers that they put the fish in?
>> Jean Sears: I think they pretty much just eat what they get.
>> Victoria Lance: It’s just like hey, we got it today, it’s tilapia night.
>> Jean Sears: Right, right, it’s tilapia night, and refugees support, they’re just an amazing organization.
And once they were on the list that they were getting the tilapia pretty regularly, they went to Home Depot and asked them to donate buckets. So each refugee family that comes regularly has a bucket, their designated bucket. And then they tell them, the week before, next week is tilapia week, bring your bucket.
>> Victoria Lance: Wow.
>> Jean Sears: So they they’ll show up, and they have cloth bags for produce that they pick up. So they’ll show up, cloth bag and bucket in hand. And then they go home with their flopping fish. And some of them take the bus, so I’m really intrigued by how the fish go over on the bus.
I have Haven’t asked Marcy that, but I should ask her if any fish go home on the Charlotte bus system. [LAUGH]
>> Victoria Lance: Wow, that’s wild.
>> Jean Sears: Yeah, it’s a really great connection for us, and I think since we’ve done that, other areas. Like maybe in Tennessee or someplace, that have made connections with tilapia farms, and they’re gleaning the fish too.
So it’s spread as an idea that it actually works. But I think it’s safer to do it that way, because the fish are still alive. Than trying to transport meat, and keep it cold, you know.
>> Victoria Lance: Makes sense.
>> Jean Sears: Yeah, and the cooling systems are a limiting factor for a lot of agencies.
They just have very limited refrigeration and freezer space, so it has to be really quick in, quick out.
>> Victoria Lance: So how would you kind of characterize the greater Charlotte region? What do you think about the different food deserts that are kind of in the areas?
>> Jean Sears: I think they’re big?
[LAUGH] It’s been interesting, cuz they’re really shifting as development in the city has shifted. My son went to West Side Schools, and I knew that, when I went to pick him up at Ashley Park Elementary School, I’d better not be planning to bring something home for dinner from there, cuz there were no grocery stores on that side of town, you know?
At least now there’s a Walmart out there on Wilkinson, but you know. It’s pretty incredible to me. When we moved into our house, we lived in South End in the Sedgefield neighborhood, and when we moved into our house, there was a little Harris Teeter there. Within probably a year, it was closed because it just didn’t fit their model.
It wasn’t big and new and fancy, like the Harris Teeters were. So they closed it, and it became like a little local store, a Giant Genie, which, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that, but it was a little local chain. So it became a Giant Genie.
And it was a grocery store for a while. And then it became a Home Economist. And it was a Home Economist for a long time, a healthy home market that changed the name. But so there was always, like, some kind of little store there. But now, with that development and affluence that has come with the light rail coming down through there, you know?
We have the huge Publix. And we have the huge, brand-new Harris Teeter, which is the largest Harris Teeter in the city, I believe. It’s just enormous. And, you know, then there’s a Food Lion. So there’s all these stores that we have access to now, that were. You know, it’s an affluent neighborhood, but.
So the grocery stores follow the affluence, they don’t follow the need. There’s obviously just as many hungry people that live off Wilkinson Boulevard, but that’s not where they’re gonna put a grocery store, cuz it’s not gonna be as profitable. And there are things that communities have done to encourage that kind of incentives for grocery stores to be in neighborhoods where they’re needed.
But I haven’t really seen kind of a political interest or will in Charlotte to move forward on that.
>> Victoria Lance: What kind of things have communities done that maybe we could do in Charlotte that you-
>> Jean Sears: They offer tax incentives for grocery stores. We offer tax incentives for all kinds of things.
But they offer tax incentives for grocery stores to invest in a neighborhood, for instance. Or to build along a transit line, or whatever. I mean, there’s different incentives. I’m sorry, I couldn’t tell you right off the top of my head-
>> Victoria Lance: No, yeah.
>> Jean Sears: What most of them are, but I know there’s tax incentives that they can offer, yeah.
>> Victoria Lance: Okay.
>> Jean Sears: The other thing that they haven’t done, which, when the light rail line went in, there was a lot of talk that there would be affordable housing built along that light rail line. And if they would put a little more, a little more nails into that, like make sure that that was actually built.
Then the folks that moved into that low-income housing would have access to the amenities that the higher-income folks are enjoying, but we don’t really. I don’t know how much you’re involved in that, and how much you know about it. But, you know, there’s very little affordable housing, and what was affordable, because it was just older, has been torn down and replaced with much higher-end living spaces.
>> Victoria Lance: And it seems like they’re pushing.
>> Jean Sears: Right.
>> Victoria Lance: That out, but not supporting.
>> Jean Sears: Right, the amenities.
>> Victoria Lance: The outer-lying areas,
>> Jean Sears: Right. So, those outer suburbs are becoming poorer. And hungrier, and, but the transit system’s not out there. There used to be quite a bit of affordable housing in my neighborhood, and that was great, because they had decent schools.
They could walk to the light rail, they could walk to the bus. But, you know, they’re all gone now and I don’t know where they went. Because, and they’re not going to go somewhere that’s more convenient than where I live. Because where I live is really convenient.
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah, I was about to say.
South End’s kind of been the center of the city. And then they push them more out towards, in Concord, that area, towards, you know. Pineville?
>> Jean Sears: Pineville’s really taken it, yeah, because they still have some older stock of apartment buildings out there, so they’ve absorbed a lot of that, Pineville.
And the further suburbs, but then how do you get anywhere?
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah.
>> Jean Sears: It’s really a struggle. Yeah.
>> Victoria Lance: So where do you see the Society of St. Andrew’s, and gleaning, and your position moving in the next five to ten years?
>> Jean Sears: I really hope that we can move forward with smaller areas, that allow to us work more intensely in the communities that we’re in.
And I think if we can do that, and really invest in people in my position that are able to build those relationships, I think in five years we could be moving three times the food that we’re moving, just because we know it’s there. We just have to have the person power to do it.
So that’s my dream for Society of St. Andrew, is that we always, as long as food goes to waste and there’s hungry people, we’ll be here. And I would like to be able to say, and we’ll be in every community where food goes to waste and there’s hungry people.
So that’s my hope of where we’re going in five years.
>> Victoria Lance: And then, do you see any, like, particular kinds of people participating in gleaning as volunteers? Do you kind of like get all sorts?
>> Jean Sears: We get all sorts, which is really fun. And one thing that I really love about it.
I mean, I can be in a field with, you know, African-Americans, whites, Vietnamese refugees, people that are in their 80s, people that bring their babies. So it’s all ages, it’s always And some people are very conservative and they do it out of a belief that stopping food waste and feeding people is a conservative value.
A lot of people are very liberal, we’re do-gooders and so we’re real liberal. So it’s just a really diverse group. A lot of folks come through their churches, but I have people that volunteer with me that have never been to church. They have no interest in church, they just do it because they love it and they love to feed people.
Some people do it more just because they love to be out on farms. It’s something fun to do outside. They truly just love the physical act of being outside. So people come to us for all different kinds of reasons. But it’s a very diverse men and women. It’s I wouldn’t say it’s probably usually in a field, it’s usually 50% African American 50% white, 50% men, 50% women and we all work together.
So it’s a great mix, which I love.
>> Victoria Lance: Do you ever have any issues managing different personalities or different in the field or with your volunteers?
>> Jean Sears: Not for the most part, we have a few that, the biggest problem we ever run into is occasionally with distribution because,
>> Jean Sears: People can get very protective of their agencies and their communities. And so if they don’t feel like they’re getting enough of something to take back to where they’re going, they can get a little prickly. And that’s been the biggest challenge that I’ve had to deal with, is just kind of getting in the middle of that.
And saying, next week maybe there’ll be more but for right now we have. We try to share and share alike and go by how big the agencies are or whatever that they’re distributing to. But that’s the biggest problem. And I think, you know what? It’s not because they’re jerks.
It’s because, and they might be jerks, but I think they just really want to do the best for the people they’re distributing to, and it manifests itself in occasionally jerky behavior. [LAUGH] Yeah and so that’s interesting that that’s really the biggest problem I ever have, is that people just want to take more to the people that they’re serving.
So not a bad problem to have, ultimately, that they’re that committed, so yeah.
>> Victoria Lance: Do you see any needs in your volunteer base? Is there anything that you’re missing that you would use more [INAUDIBLE]
>> Jean Sears: I saw that happen. [LAUGH] What I always need in my volunteer base are people with flexible schedules that can distribute food.
Yeah, typically pickup trucks without toppers on them, empty bed. When I drive around Charlotte and I see a pick up truck with this big bed and I think, you should be hauling food for me. Yeah. Driving that big truck, you are not doing good for anybody. So, which is judgmental of me, maybe they are doing good for people, I don’t know, but they’re not working for me, so.
[LAUGH] So that’s a real need, is just that kind of flexibility in their schedules. It typically takes somebody who’s retired and still healthy enough to be a little active in the distribution process. And then have a truck that can pick up large loads of stuff. So I’m pretty lucky to have a lot of great volunteers.
And being in Charlotte, which is a community that prides itself on volunteerism and serving people, I don’t usually have trouble finding volunteers to go out to the fields. But the distribution, especially in the summer, I can wear people out just because I never have quite enough people that can haul that food.
>> Victoria Lance: So is there anything about gleaning that is misunderstood? What clarification to give to the general public?
>> Jean Sears: Most people don’t know what the word means. [LAUGH] Yeah, once you describe it to people, peole seem to have a good idea what it is. And I think the only thing people don’t understand is that historically, biblically, gleaning was something, if you were hungry you went out to the field and gleaned it yourself.
And occasionally I hear from people that say, if they’re so hungry, why aren’t they out there gleaning it? And some people do come out. But usually people are hungry because they have physical disabilities that they can’t get out. Or if they can’t get to a grocery store to buy fresh produce, how are they gonna drive an hour to a farm to pick fresh produce?
So gleaning, and I just guess that’s just a clarification for people. That people need to understand that we use volunteers to do the work for them because of just the logistics of getting to the field, or because of handicaps or age or whatever, they just can’t do it
>> Victoria Lance: There aren’t as many fields anymore. It’s not like you can go next door.
>> Jean Sears: They’re not just right next door. That’s what I’m saying. Usually you’re driving 45 minutes to an hour, which is a lot of gas for somebody who’s on limited income, if they even have a car.
I had one lady call me, and she said, I really want to come glean but I don’t have a car. And she was hungry, she wanted to come and glean for herself and then share what else she picked. And just the logistics of finding somebody she could carpool with, she was never able to come, because how do you do it?
Cuz we come from a pretty wide part of the area, so the chance that there’s somebody that could pick up Ms. Mabel or whatever and bring her to a gleaning is pretty slim on a given day. So that’s I don’t know that it’s a misconception about gleaning. It’s a misconception about how we serve the people we serve.
That we’re not doing it because they don’t want to help. It’s just that in most cases they physically can’t do it for whatever reason.
>> Victoria Lance: So any other questions that I have should have asked you, that I have not?
>> Jean Sears: Gosh, you have been so thorough. These are great questions.
They were different than I usually get asked. So a lot of them were very different, that was fun. [LAUGH]
>> Victoria Lance: Thank you!
>> Jean Sears: No, I can’t think of anything. And they were really thorough. If I think of anything, I will get a hold of you.
>> Victoria Lance: Yeah.
>> Jean Sears: What kind of pictures, like, what kind of things are you looking for?
>> Victoria Lance: I mean, just say thank you