Whidbey's Gleaners: Volunteer group picks apples for the hungry

Gleeful Gleaners volunteers Sandi Coutts and Gabrielle Baalke pick apples at a home on Maxwelton Road last week.  - Justin Burnett / The Record
Gleeful Gleaners volunteers Sandi Coutts and Gabrielle Baalke pick apples at a home on Maxwelton Road last week.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Fingers were numb, teeth chattered and jackets were zipped.

Yet, holding true to their name, a small band of intrepid Gleeful Gleaners volunteers were nothing but smiles and fun during an apple pick at a Maxwelton Road home last week. Indeed, the frosty temperatures did little to dampen their moods.

“We want to have a good time — that’s why we’re Gleeful Gleaners,” said Margaret Moore, one of the non-profit group’s founders.

Armed with nothing more than smiles and nifty metal claws mounted on long wooden poles, Moore and two other women — Sandi Coutts and Gabrielle Baalke — in very short and cheery order had several boxes overflowing with Whidbey-grown apples.

Of course, when you’re working to fill hungry bellies with healthy food that would otherwise go to waste, a little chilly weather is nothing to fret about.

Hatched in 2010, the all-volunteer organization was created to do just that — collect organic fruit on private property and give it to groups such as Good Cheer Food Bank & Thrift Stores and the South Whidbey Bayview Senior Center.

So far it’s been quite a successful endeavor, bringing in an estimated 12,500 pounds of fruit in the first three years. Volunteers have already hit 27 properties this year and expect to end the 2013 season with a haul of more than 7,000 pounds.

In all, that will total 19,500 pounds of perfectly good, healthy, organic food grown right here on Whidbey Island that would have rotted away in an unseen backyard.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Trisha Brigham, a lead volunteer with Whidbey Island Nourishes, or WIN. 

The organization works to provide food for island youths, and volunteers like Brigham were more than happy to accept the apples the Gleaners harvested last week. Most of it was destined to go home with hungry students in Backpack Lunches — after school meals — but apples that look less than perfect are made into applesauce. It’s then stocked in vending machines in Langley and Clinton that offer healthy and free treats to the public.

“(The Gleaners) keep us pretty busy this time of year but we don’t mind — no complaints here,” Brigham laughed.

Private property owners tend to be Gleaners fans as well. Some are retired and can’t pick fruit anymore ,and group volunteers provide them with some of the rescued bounty. For others, such as Michael and Lori McGibney of Freeland who have Asian pears, apples, plums and several other fruits on their land, it’s simply too much for one couple to eat. Giving it to the Gleaners was an easy choice. 

“It’s a great way to give back to the community but, more importantly, the food doesn’t go to waste by going to people who can use it,” Michael McGibney said.

Gleeful Gleaner Coordinator A.T. Birmingham Young, also a founder, called the group a “resounding success at all levels.”

“Between the waste we’re preventing and the joy and good food we’re getting to the community, it’s a win/win,” Birmingham Young said.

But like all new and successful organizations, the group has growing pains. With so much food being collected, the Gleaners are always on the hunt for additional volunteers, especially those with trucks and a rack for ladders. The group is also hoping for a root cellar where harvested fruit can be stored and preserved.

But those are good problems to have and, in the meantime, volunteers like Moore, Coutts and Baalke plan to keep on picking.

“It’s just an all-around, feel-good activity,” Coutts said.


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