Hunger, Gleaning and Clarence

SPRINGFIELD – The ancient Biblical practice of gleaning fields after harvest to collect remnants of food for the hungry is spreading from fields to markets, and a newly enhanced federal tax benefit is incentivizing the practice for farmers.

In the shadow of the Old State Capitol dome in Springfield, Clarence Johnson is a modern day gleaner, walking up and down Adams Street with boxes, a cart, an electronic scale and record sheets.

On a recent Saturday, Johnson gleaned 721 pounds of heirloom tomatoes, baby eggplants, onions, cucumbers, zucchini, green peppers and apples. It was all produce farmers had brought to the Old Capitol Farmers Market but did not sell, and they donate it.

Johnson, 48, works for Central Illinois Food Bank. Last year, he gleaned a total of 55,000 pounds of the freshest, premium fruits and vegetables from three farmers markets in Springfield. It all goes back to the food bank’s warehouse.

“As quick as it comes in to the warehouse, it goes out. It’s picked up by Salvation Army, St. Martin, St. John’s, a shelter for battered women, our different agencies,” Johnson said.

“I love this work. It’s a way to give back to our community. The farmers know who I am. Even their kids know who I am. Last year, one of the farmer’s 4-year-old son wanted his photo taken in my truck.”

Christy Gilmore, food and agency resource director with Central Illinois Food Bank, said the donated food ends up with 150 agencies from food pantries to homeless shelters in 21 counties.

The Saturday market opens at 8 a.m. By 11:30 a.m. Johnson has parked the Central Illinois Food Bank van on Fourth Street. Assisted by Mary Ann McLean, a volunteer from University of Illinois Master Gardener program, he makes his first round, greeting farmers and their children, asking if they would like an empty box or two for any produce they didn’t sell that they’d like to donate. Tara Holcomb of Willow City Farm asked Johnson if he could stop by after the market to help her load an ice chest into her car. No problem, he said, indicating he’s happy to assist.

“He is the nicest guy,” Holcomb said. “When he walks by and people see him, they always smile. Wherever he goes, people always start to smile. He lights up everyone.”

The sun was hot by noon. Adams Street was teeming with people and their dogs. Johnson stood in the middle of the street and suddenly started singing a gospel hymn in his deep sonorous voice.

After the hymn he said simply, “I feel blessed to do this work,” and he got back to the task at hand.

The enhanced tax deduction was passed by Congress in December 2015 to improve the existing deduction a farmer can take for food donated to a not-for-profit organization. Farmers can deduct their cost for growing the food plus half their unrealized gross profit for the item if it had sold at the market. The deduction can be used over a five-year period for any year the farmer would find it most helpful. However, the deduction cannot exceed two times the cost of growing the item.

Rebecca Osland, policy associate at Illinois Stewardship Alliance that manages the market, said, “It’s a problem that people in this country are hungry, but we need to insure that farmers earn income. So many farmers are already struggling.”

Lindsay Record, executive director of Illinois Stewardship Alliance, said, “Any incentive program that helps farmers and makes it easier to get healthy food to vulnerable populations is good. This program also helps minimize food waste.”

Johnson collects from several markets and usually works about four hours every Saturday. Several weekdays, he works from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“Can you imagine the stress of waking up in the morning and not knowing how you are going to feed your kids,” Johnson said. “In the wealthiest country in the world, that’s ludicrous. This program is about a lot more than food. It’s about community.”

Several local agencies have collected unsold produce from vendors at Peoria RiverFront Farmers Market periodically in the past, however, the new enhanced tax credit for farmers could help incentivize that effort.

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