Allie Smith, the coordinator of the Veggies for All gleaning program, picks heirloom apples Thursday morning at the Common Ground Country Fairgrounds in Unity. The apples' ultimate destination is the Belfast Soup Kitchen. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

UNITY, Maine — On a picture-perfect October day, the heirloom Brock apples on a laden tree at the Common Ground Country Fairgrounds in Unity were juicy, sweet and so ready for harvest they were practically dropping to the ground by themselves.

Without a Common Ground Fair last month, there weren’t enough people to eat all those apples. They might have gone to waste.

But that’s where Allie Smith, the coordinator of the gleaning program at the Waldo County nonprofit organization Veggies for All, came in.  

Gleaning is an ancient tradition of collecting, at no charge, crops that have been left behind or unharvested from farmers’ fields and trees. It’s mentioned in the Bible, but in Maine, it’s a still-vibrant practice that allows lots of folks to enjoy fresh produce they can’t otherwise afford to eat. 

“It’s important to us that food not be going to waste,” Smith said. “So much food gets wasted, and there’s a lot of food insecurity in our community. We like to make sure that everybody has access to fresh, healthy food.”

According to a recent projection from the Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine, 5,460 Waldo County residents — nearly 14 percent of the overall population — are expected to experience hunger and food insecurity this year. That includes 1 in 4 children.

It’s a big number. It also seems to be a mismatch between people who don’t have enough healthy food to eat and the bounty of food that is so visible in Waldo County on trees, in gardens, at farms and at farmers markets this time of year.

That’s why Smith and two volunteers spent the morning climbing narrow, wooden apple ladders and filling their apron pockets with the fruit. They then packed the apples, hundreds of pounds altogether, in cardboard boxes that ultimately would end up at the Belfast Soup Kitchen.

“It’s a good thing to do, and it’s a beautiful day,” Roland Stumpff of Troy said as he picked apples.

So far this year, the gleaners also have been invited to harvest produce such as beets, winter squash, eggplants, tomatoes and watermelons that would not otherwise be used — and that’s a win for everyone, Smith said.

A volunteer crew of Mount View Middle School students recently harvested 2,000 pounds of winter squash from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion. Other area farms that have opened up their fields include South Paw Farm in Freedom and White Pine Farm in Thorndike.

“There’s so many people in our community who care about making things better and not letting things go to waste,” Smith said.

One of her volunteers, Michele Carrier-Clinch of Thorndike, chimed in.

“It’s the Maine way,” she said.

That’s how Anna Libby, the community education director at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, sees it, too. This has been a great apple year at MOFGA, with much more fruit than usual on the trees, she said, while also being an atypical year for the association. Because of the pandemic, it canceled the in-person Common Ground Fair for the second year in a row and is hosting fewer in-person workshops and events this year than usual.

“When the fair happens in person, the apples typically get used during the event,” Libby said. “But we have many more apples this year and fewer ways that we’re using them.”

Over the growing season, MOFGA has brought produce, including apples, to the Waldo County Bounty Give and Take Tables that are located throughout the county. The tables are where gardeners can give their extra bounty, and where people in need of fresh produce can take some home with them.

“That’s been great,” Libby said.

But it’s not practical to drop hundreds of pounds of apples at the Give & Take Tables.

“One thing we appreciate about Veggies for All is that they’re able to take a larger quantity and bring some helpers with them, too,” Libby said.

Carrier-Clinch also volunteers with Waldo County Bounty, a nonprofit organization that launched last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It made headlines in May when a fundraising partnership with the Lost Kitchen restaurant in Freedom raised more than $325,000 in less than two weeks.

The group aims to improve access to locally-grown food for people experiencing hunger and food insecurity in Waldo County, and supports the Veggies for All gleaning program. Carrier-Clinch said she notices that very little at the Give and Take tables wound up being composted because so many people took advantage of all the produce that was available.  

“You see it helping people,” she said of the tables and the gleaning program.

Maria Jacobs sees that, too. She’s the volunteer and guest services coordinator at the Belfast Soup Kitchen, the destination for apples and lots of other produce that has been gleaned from area farms.

“It’s such a gift for us to be able to receive them and distribute them to folks in our community who may not have access to them in their daily lives,” she said. “I just know that you can see that it really lights our community members up when they can have this type of produce available at their fingertips.”

The apples, she said, are certain to be a bit hit. She envisions apple bread, apple crisps and people happily just taking big bites out of the juicy fruit.

“Tis the season,” Jacobs said. “It’s part of our New England tradition, for sure.”