ST. ALBANS — The Central Maine Gleaners Group went through Larry Price’s garden on Nokomis Road early Saturday morning, and in so doing secured an immense amount of potatoes.

Price, a trucker, gave away the whole yield of his potato field to the gleaners, who were joined by a Girl Scout troop. The gleaners hoped for a few thousand pounds of potatoes to give to food banks in the Newport and Winslow areas and at Nokomis High School, said Steven Knight, who founded the Central Maine Gleaners Group in 2015.

“They have plenty of places to go, and unfortunately there are a lot of hungry people,” Knight said.

Knight, a retired chemistry teacher, previously operated a gleaning group in the Augusta area, but moved from Winthrop to Waterville two years ago with his wife, Margy, to be closer to his grandchildren. Knight, 67, finds farmers and other sources of food with leftovers to share and organizes the larger gleaning events.

“I’ve been concerned with food waste my whole life,” Knight said. “I think we waste so much food in this country, and I’m trying to cut that down.”

Gleaning is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “the act of collecting excess fresh foods from farms, gardens, farmers markets, grocers, restaurants, state/county fairs, or any other sources in order to provide it to those in need.” The USDA estimates more than 100 billion pounds of usable food are thrown away in the United States each year.

Knight’s squad of gleaners pick up food five days per week at Thayer Center for Health, consisting mostly of unsold meals from the MaineGeneral cafeteria. The group also gleans from the Waterville Farmers Market weekly and has secured more than $2,000 worth of food from the market alone.

The group gathers and sends items directly to places that either feed their clients or distribute the food, but cooking is not out of the question.

Knight looks to Brunswick’s Merrymeeting Gleaners as a model. They have a kitchen and storage facility, more than 180 volunteers and glean six farms. Merrymeeting has a cooking team that comes in, too.

“They’re about five years ahead of us,” Knight said. “It’s a real well-oiled machine.”

The gleanings mostly go to Waterville’s Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, but the group also regularly donates to the Alfond Youth Center. In the past, they’ve supplied the Winslow Community Cupboard, Muskie Center, Kennebec Valley Community College’s food pantry and other programs.

Volunteer Alan Douin picks up food from MaineGeneral in Augusta and delivers it to the homeless shelter five days a week. MaineGeneral has donated 8,568 pounds of food, or 4 1/2 tons. The food is healthy, oftentimes local and fresh.

Linda Woods, the group’s secretary, runs monthly meetings via Zoom or outdoors. Scott McAdoo is the chair. Fran Mullen is the director of Healthy Northern Kennebec and Samantha Cottone serves as the SNAP-Ed educator at the nonprofit, which is located at MaineGeneral. A handful of others volunteer. The group would like to expand its reach but needs some help.

“That would be ideal but we don’t have the manpower,” Knight said.

Mullen’s group helps provide staffing and volunteer support. They sprouted the Healthy Waterville initiative in 2014, which focused on food insecurity. Within that initiative, a food recovery group formed.

“Steve had a great gleaning group in southern Kennebec County, so when he moved to Waterville we were like, ‘let’s go get him,'” Mullen said. “The food recovery group and the gleaners group joined forces to help reduce food waste and get the healthiest food possible to people in our communities.”

Cottone joined Healthy Northern Kennebec toward the end of April. She works with the gleaners through Policy Systems Environment Change (PSE) through Maine SNAP-Ed.

“It’s not only a work project, but also a passion project for me,” Cottone said. “I’m very much interested in building access to nutritious foods for those who need it most and anyone else in the community.”

Knight has also built four garden boxes on Main Street in Waterville, where anyone is allowed to harvest.

The newly painted signs read: “These veggies are for you. Take a few, try something new. Pick leaves and fruit. Leave stems and root. Bon appétit!”

The Central Maine Gleaners hope to grow their volunteer pool. For more information, email Linda Woods at [email protected]

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