December 5, 2021

A fruitful endeavour

Volunteers glean blueberries to help feed those in need

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Spencer Wilson, age 8, picks blueberries at Hall’s Hill Blueberry Farm in Virgil. On Saturday, Spencer, his brother Ned and their dad Ben volunteered to help Seven Valleys Health Coalition with its blueberry gleaning event, where all the freshly picked berries will go directly to local food pantries.

It’s the tail-end of blueberry season, but thousands of fresh berries needed to be picked.

Instead of letting the harvest fall off to rot on the ground, volunteers spent all day Saturday picking the best of the leftover blueberries to donate to food pantries.

A few years ago, Jeff Hall, owner of Hall’s Hill Blueberry Farm, was impressed by Seven Valleys Health Coalitions’ Cortland Food Project and offered his field for gleaning.

“We are blessed, and it’s important to try to give back to your community — your community supports you so you try to support them, especially the less fortunate,” Hall said. This is the third year he’s hosted the blueberry gleaning event to fight food insecurity in Cortland County.

“Our goal has always been simply to decrease the amount of food waste that occurs in our area while increasing the opportunity to get fresh, nutritious food for those who may be dealing with hunger or have limited food access,” said Gabrielle DiDomenico, project coordinator for Seven Valleys.

Gleaning and food rescue can help a community in several ways, she said.

“First, reducing food waste creates a healthier environment for all to live, play, and work in by reducing the amount of what goes to the landfill,” DiDomenico said. “Second, we think food equity is important and that access to nutritious, health-supporting food is a basic human right.”

“Third, by getting involved in an event like this, you, the volunteer, get to broaden your understanding of the struggles in your neighborhood while building up your own spirit through the gift of service and meeting a need,” she added.

Ben Wilson, an associate professor of economics at SUNY Cortland and member of Seven Valleys’ Cortland Food Project steering committee, brought his kids with him for an afternoon of blueberry picking.

“My research is in food systems, and we’ve found that even things as simple as food allergies are resulting from the access that people have to food.

So this is really nice, that fresh blueberries are being made available,” Wilson said. Wilson and his sons Ned and Spencer, ages 11 and 8 respectively, picked the best blueberries they could find.

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Ben Wilson and his sons, Spencer (left) and Ned (middle) pick blueberries Saturday at Hall’s Hill Blueberry Farm.

“Whether somebody is making a donation of food or volunteering their time at a food bank, pantry or soup kitchen, no gift is too large or too small to make the difference in somebody’s life,” said Lynn Hy, chief development officer for the Food Bank of Central New York.

The food bank has served 6,280 Cortland County residents in the past year — which is more than the 5,990 in 2019 but is down from the spike in hunger seen during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Hy said.

Supplying food is not a short-term solution, Hy said.

Whether it’s because they live in a food desert and can’t travel to a grocery store, they lost their job during the pandemic or simply don’t have the money for nutritious food, the food bank helps people by giving them one less thing to worry about.

On Saturday, the coalition saw 32 volunteers show up, picking more than 65 pounds of blueberries — enough to feed about 40 people, depending on how much they love blueberries.

The berries were stored in a refrigerator at Main Street Farms. Today, the coalition will deliver the haul to the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and Loaves & Fishes for their pantry-goers and community meals.

“To make it through the month, or even just the day, that’s what the Emergency Food Network is for — to help people have access to nutritious food because without nutritious food you can’t live,” Hy said.

If you need food

For more information about how to find soup kitchens and food pantries, or for assistance with applying for SNAP or WIC programs go to:

  • and click “Find Food” at the top of the page.