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By Terry Ommen
Dusting Off History 

Visalia Gleaning Seniors Serving for Nearly 50 Years


Last updated 5/25/2023 at 5:10pm | View PDF

Members of the Visalia Gleaners include (left to right): Richard Celaya, Sofia Hernandez, Olivia Landaverde and Oscar Huezo.

Tulare County is fortunate to have an abundance of food, and that's why it is called a breadbasket to the world. Unfortunately, the county is also known for its high poverty rate. Based on 2021 U.S. Census figures, nearly one in every five county residents live in poverty. And undoubtedly within that group some go hungry and regularly wonder about their next meal.

Government - federal, state, and local - does much to address the hunger problem through various assistance programs, and churches, community food pantries, rescue missions and other nonprofits do their part in the fight against hunger. One of these is the Visalia Gleaning Seniors. The group has been around for the last 47 years, but still many people don't know much about it.

The Visalia Gleaners began in 1976 and was patterned after a similar group in Sacramento. While Cal Dooley, the son of rural Visalia ranchers, Dick and Do Dooley, was attending college, he had heard about the work of the gleaners in the state capital. Dooley, who later was elected to the U.S. Congress and served for 14 years as our representative, wrote in 1992, "I originally discovered the idea of 'gleaning' while in college at the University of California at Davis.

"I was introduced to the Sacramento Senior Gleaners and felt that the idea could certainly work in Visalia. When I returned to the area after graduation, I approached Senior Center management. We held a couple of organizational meetings where we set objectives for the group." Thanks to Cal's impetus, the Visalia Gleaners was organized.

The idea of gleaning is not new, in fact it dates back to Biblical times when the poor were allowed to go into a farmer's field and gather up leftover food. By doing so, the poor were fed with food that would otherwise be wasted. Early in the program, Dooley helped connect farmers willing to share with the seniors. He wrote, "I was instrumental in the initial interfacing between the organization and area farmers. We first 'gleaned' apricots from Harold Grieber."

The Visalia Gleaners started at the Visalia Senior Center with a small group of workers including Carl Benc, Bob and Lee Hagen and Pearl Mathews. Groups like the Visalia Chamber of Commerce and Visalia Volunteer Bureau were instrumental in the beginning.

Over the years, the group has operated out of several locations throughout Visalia, oftentimes requiring multiple spots. But in 2007, all that changed thanks to the generosity of the Visalia School District. The school property at 28600 Road 156 became home to the group and the Gleaners remain there today.

For nearly 50 years the Gleaners have experienced highs and lows. One exhilarating moment occurred in 1995 when founding member Annie Maye Hanna purchased a much needed nearly new 1994 Ford flatbed truck for the group. But in 2009, they hit a low point when someone destroyed the truck while trying to steal it.

But through all the ups and downs, the group fed the hungry and helped so many. In 2022, for example, the Visalia Gleaning Seniors gave away over 1.8 million pounds of food.

When the Gleaners first started, food came from farmers who allowed seniors to glean their fields. But today, due to liability concerns, seniors no longer go onto the farmer's land. Instead, they receive their food, mostly from retail stores and markets that have more food than they can sell. Thanks to their generosity the Gleaners consistently have more than enough food for their 311 members.

Some of the local retail markets participating include Savemart, Winco, Best Buy, Walmart and R & N. They call them when they have food to donate and volunteers from the Gleaners pick it up. Foodlink also provides food to the group. If the Gleaners have any extra food, it is distributed to groups like the Rescue Mission and to the homeless. Food is rarely wasted.

Donna Hall, a retired Visalia city clerk, is currently the volunteer office manager and has been involved with them for the last eight years. She is committed to the organization's mission "to glean surplus food from every available source for distribution among the membership and other nonprofit charitable organizations in a fair and equitable manner."

Hall says the two biggest challenges the organization faces today is having enough cash to operate and finding enough volunteers to pick up and deliver the food. Even though everyone associated with the Gleaners is a volunteer and receives no pay for their work, the operation requires cash for various expenses like volunteer mileage reimbursement, office supplies and equipment repairs.

So the Gleaners gladly accept donations both in cash and saleable items that they can sell at their yard sales. The sales are open to the public and are held the first Friday and Saturday of each month. This revenue is the primary source of income for the group.

Judie Casey, current president of the board of directors, is committed to the organization's work. She is a retired insurance executive and brings leadership and organizational skills to her job. She compassionately serves "those who can't afford a loaf of bread," and is committed "to feed those that do not have enough to eat."

Donna Hall (left) is the office manager and Judie Casey is the president of the board.

Both Hall and Casey are dedicated to their work and have no plans to leave. When asked how long they planned on working with the Gleaners, both said "We would never NOT do it."

The 2023 Board of Directors for the Visalia Gleaning Seniors are Judie Casey, president; Nick Sherwood, vice president; Irene Muller, secretary; Gayle Surratt, treasurer; Delila Bradshaw, sunshine; and Directors Janice Pineda, Leila Hipp, Tom Hughes, Steve Watkins Nancy Shackleford, Larry Kast and Don Jacobs.

Want to help? They are a 501(c)3 tax exempt nonprofit charitable organization, so if you want to help with a donation of cash or saleable yard sale items, or want to volunteer, contact Donna Hall or Judie Casey at (559) 733-5352.

The mailing address is P.O. Box 3835, Visalia, CA 93278, and the office and yard sale location is 28600 Road 156 (near Linnell, just east of Visalia).


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