SUDLERSVILLE -- Gloria Luster, 76, has bad knees, a bad heart and no money to spare, but that doesn't stop her from spending all morning in somebody else's spinach patch on a recent Thursday, gathering food for the poor.
Sighing as she stoops, Luster sweeps the deep green leaves into her arms and stuffs them into a mesh bag. As she works, the spinach rustles like sails in a light wind.
"Can't you see the spinach salad, with the cucumber and the onion and the vinaigrette?" she asks, all but smacking her lips.
Though Luster owns neither the spinach nor the land on which it grows -- she lives in Pimlico -- she and a group of about 30 other volunteers have permission to pick all they can. Luster runs a group called the Baltimore Area Gleaning Network, and for about five years has traveled to far-flung corners of the state to gather food in farmers' fields that would otherwise go to waste.
By nightfall, the 2,900 pounds of spinach they pick -- 116 bags' worth -- will be in the stomachs of needy people in Baltimore and Washington who can't afford to buy fresh produce.
Gleaning has been around since ancient times -- the Bible has several passages about it -- but became more widespread during the mid-1990s, when then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman began encouraging it as a way to combat food waste.
Glickman, who now works at a law firm in Washington, says an estimated 90 billion pounds of food go to waste in this country every year, either left out in the fields or thrown away from restaurants and cafeterias at the end of the day. That amounts to between one-fourth and one-fifth of all the food produced, he says.
"People are awed, dumbstruck, when they understand how much food is thrown away," Glickman says. "It's mind-boggling."
The Baltimore Area Gleaning Network started five years ago with a small grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That first season, Luster says, she and about 650 others gathered 80,000 pounds of food for needy folks.
Even after the federal grant ran out, Luster didn't want to let the program go. She has continued to organize volunteers and glean produce with help from the Abell Foundation and the Washington Area Gleaning Network, a larger organization that has been around (though not always under the same name) since the late 1980s.
Working together, the two groups gathered 3 million pounds of produce last year and distributed it to shelters and food pantries in both cities and surrounding areas.
The gleaning begins in April with leftover fall crops like collard greens, kale and turnips. In May, the spinach comes in. June's a quiet month, with maybe a few strawberries; in July, things pick up with cabbage, sweet corn, peaches and plums. August brings melons, blueberries and tomatoes. September has just about everything. There are apples in October. In December, the gleaners travel to Virginia for broccoli.
From January to June, they volunteer at warehouses unloading truckloads of produce from the South: grapefruits from Florida, sweet potatoes from North Carolina.
Volunteers from the Baltimore and Washington networks met recently at a farm in Sudlersville on the Eastern Shore. They wanted to gather as much leftover spinach as possible before the farmer, Kenneth Yoder, turned the earth over and converted the field to sweet corn. After three hours, they had plucked less than an acre of the 60 that surrounded them -- but had plenty to take to the poor.
"We like to help people who aren't fortunate," says Yoder, noting that some produce is usually left behind after the machines sweep through the fields. "We definitely don't like things to go to waste."
Bill Ewing, executive director of the Maryland Food Bank, says Luster and the other volunteers provide much-needed fruits and vegetables to Maryland's pantries. Most donated food, he says, is not quite so nutritious.
"We can't get as passionate about cookies or potato chips," he says.
The gleaners arrive at the farm about 9:30 a.m. They begin the morning's work with prayer: "Praise the Lord. We are doing the Lord's work." Because the Bible encourages gleaning, many volunteers are devout Christians or Jews who feel they are following the Bible's bidding. A passage from Deuteronomy reads: "When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings."
When the prayer is finished, the group heads to the spinach field, the nutritious green leaves stretching as far as the eye can see. The group includes mostly older folks from Baltimore and Washington. Luster comes to the spinach field wearing sneakers and a hat that says "Hallock's U-Pick Farm." She grew up in East Baltimore, where her grandfather taught her to garden and compost and raise chickens during the Depression. Although she never went hungry, she says, her experiences in those lean years made her intolerant of waste.
Many years later, after retiring from an office job in city government, she became a master gardener and composter. In addition to her gleaning efforts, she has begun urban gardens so she can teach the poor how grow produce.
"I'm a fighter against hunger in this city," she says. "I want to teach people how to help themselves and how to augment their diets. Many of the working poor and the low-income people just don't have enough money to buy fresh fruits and vegetables."
Like many of the volunteers, she is elderly and has health problems.
"I am diabetic," Luster says, taking one of her frequent breaks from picking spinach. "I have had cardiac and respiratory arrest. I had cancer. I'm here for some reason still. I like to think I'm here to feed people."
Gleaner Hilton Lockes, who lives next to Luster in Pimlico, worked in a Giant supermarket produce department for 33 years, and the day he retired swore he'd never spend time with vegetables again.
That was before Luster knocked on his door and recruited him. Now Lockes, 64, has a freezer full of vegetables and spends about two days a week volunteering for her.
On this day, he works in tandem with Luster, cutting the spinach that she then sweeps from the ground. He uses a kitchen knife and moves down the row quickly, joking with Luster as he goes.
"I know one thing," he says. "I ain't bought no vegetables since I left Giant."
In addition to the older volunteers from the inner cities, a group of middle school pupils from Bowie Montessori Children's House has come along. John Curry Chambers, 13, says he enjoys picking spinach for the poor.
"It's better than math," he says.