Blessings. Abundance. Gratitude. I have tossed these words around all week like old crayons on the craft table—they’re colorful, functional and worn to a nub, but they get the job done. Thanksgiving stirs a place of sincerity and generosity in our hearts, and we are grateful for all we have. But when the leftover turkey and mashed potatoes are gone, does that sagey comfort endure? For me, not always. Holiday demands hurtle into view with a flip of the wall calendar.
So, I’m going to set Thursday’s beautiful Thanksgiving celebration with family and friends on the back burner for a minute and instead share an experience I had on this snowy Thanksgiving eve. It infused new energy and meaning into my perceptions of blessings, abundance and thankfulness, and gave me something more to hold onto—perhaps longer than that last delicious wedge of pumpkin pie.
My story starts and ends with carrots.
On the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, my son Hunter and I brave snowy, circuitous Pleasant Valley Road enroute to Gravity Hill Farm in Titusville. Gravity Hill is a small family farm, dedicated to teaching about nature and nurturing through organic farming and raising animals. It values family, community and education.
Farmers and volunteers sprinkle sand on the driveway as we edge up the steep incline to the farm parking lot. By now, I am thinking, “Am I crazy? Why am I doing this?” We are there to participate in Gravity Hill’s annual Final Harvest, during which community members—many of whom are regular farm customers—are invited to glean leftover vegetables from the fields. For the past several years, some 40 volunteers have donned their workboots for a few hours of harvesting. But, this year, the weather is not cooperating. The rolling landscape is a blanket of snowy white, with only the tips of trailing vines and stems peaking up through the fresh covering. Still, we have made it this far. I am determined to venture on.
We trudge up the embankment to Gravity Hill’s Community Building and open the door on unexpected hospitality. Final Harvest volunteers and visitors from nearby communities like Pennington, Titusville and Trenton sit together at long tables topped with patchwork cloths, sipping hot chocolate prepared with almond milk and eating squares of real gingerbread with fresh raspberries and whipped cream. I settle Hunter at the craft table with a spool of decorative duct tape in each hand and head to the counter. A pleasant woman working in the kitchen serves me a bowl of hot curried carrot ginger soup made with “fresh ingredients from the farm.” I don’t know if it is the numbness in my fingers, the snow falling gently on fields outside the windows or the hand-picked, organic carrots, but it is literally the best soup I have ever eaten.
A yellow sign positioned on an easel reminds me of why we are here: “To Nourish Neighbors in Need.” The purpose of Gravity Hill’s Final Harvest—as well as fall gleanings at some 20 other area farms, including Honey Brook Organic Farm and Blue Moon Acres in Pennington—is to donate fresh produce to Rolling Harvest Food Rescue, an organization run by local hero Cathy Snyder.
Rolling Harvest “rescues” leftover crops and food from farms and groceries in Hunterdon, Bucks and Mercer counties, that would otherwise be wasted, and delivers it free to area food pantries and shelters. Recipients include West Trenton Community Center, Fisherman’s Mark Food Pantry, Doylestown Food Pantry, Little Haven Shelter and Community Kitchen of Lambertville.
The custom of gleaning—referred to in the Bible as the poor following the reapers in the field and gleaning the fallen spears of grain—means to collect leftover crops from farmers’ fields after a harvest. Think, for instance, of all those just-fallen apples littering the ground of an orchard. While the snow has dampened our plans to pick our donations this morning, the bulk of Gravity Hill’s remaining harvest (which it protects throughout the season for this community event) has been gleaned the previous day. So, warmed from the inside out with soup and marshmallow-laden hot chocolate, we bundle up again and head outside to inspect the yield.
Inside the barn, bins overflow with hundreds of pounds of fennel, kohlrabi, beets, watermelon radishes, kale and carrots—all organically grown and in perfect condition. As farmers busy themselves with various tasks, one woman dressed in an apron and bright blue rubber gloves, leans over the sink scrubbing dirt from the produce and preparing it for delivery. It is Rolling Harvest’s Cathy Snyder. Snyder was a volunteer at a food pantry in Lambertville five years earlier, serving boxed mac and cheese, canned Chef Boyardee and bruised bananas to patrons, when she decided to take on the task of improving the quality and nutritional value of donated foods. Soon after, she launched Rolling Harvest.
It has become a labor of love.
“This final harvest is a chance to provide for people who are food insecure, those who don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, much less organic produce,” says Snyder. “Fifteen percent of the people, even in affluent counties like Hunterdon and Bucks, don’t know where their next meal is going to come from. Kids in these counties are hungry. Their parents are making hard choices about rent, medicine, school books or cell phone bills. In our food system, the healthiest foods are the most expensive. Most people who rely on food pantries and shelters only have access to highly processed, long shelf life, inexpensive foods. The paradox is that farms are producing beautiful food within a mile of people in desperate need. This paradox seems very wrong to the farmers here at Gravity Hill Farm and the other farmers we work with. So, they are doing something about it. Rolling Harvest partners with the people who are growing the food to create a logistic simplicity to get it to the people who need it.”
Since 2009, Snyder and her team of volunteers have donated some 360,000 pounds of harvested goods, which she says translates to 1.8 million servings of extra vegetables, fruits and organic meats that might have simply been thrown away. While we talk, farmers load produce into Snyder’s Rolling Harvest van and a second van labeled West Trenton Community Center, which is driven by the center’s founder, Nate McCray. McCray will use his portion of the harvest to put on a hot meal for 150 area residents in need.
It is time for us to go. In addition to a restless 4-year-old tugging desperately at my coat, I am full from my rich experience at Gravity Hill. It’s more than that awesome soup. It is one woman’s mission. It is a farm’s abundance and generosity. It is a community’s willingness to help. It is the seamless way it all comes together quietly on a hillside in Titusville. And it is the need surrounding us that so often goes unnoticed—or ignored. I leave with a deeper appreciation for blessings, gratitude, my neighbors and, of course, carrots. Happy Thanksgiving…and enjoy the leftovers.