February 6, 2013

Best Friends With Broccoli

The alarm clock beeped incessantly. Obnoxiously. 
It was Friday morning and I felt shattered as I had worked very late the night before. I could see it was still was dark outside. In denial, I pulled the warm covers over my head, suddenly remembering there was a method to this madness; I had a mitzvah to do. This thought energized me.  Soon, my husband and I were in the car, a full pot of steaming coffee (our consolation prize) between us.
Plugging our destination into Waze (and if you don’t know about this, it’s a very clever GPS system that was proudly developed in Ra’anana), we drove north along an empty highway. The sun popped up, shimmering atop lush green fields. I could see that the recent abundant rains had fortified the earth, awakening poppies and daisies with swirls of red and yellow.
We were on our way to pick vegetables for Leket, an incredible organization that cultivates and harvests 3,300,000 pounds of vegetables annually for the needy. And this is just the farm initiative. Leket specializes in food rescue, collecting18,250,000 pounds of fruits, vegetable, hot meals and perishable food from some 7,000 producers.
We passed pine forests in the Carmel Mountains, then headed into a fertile valley of fields.  It was Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish birthday of trees, and a day that officially marks spring fever in Israel. I was very excited to be spending this significant day outdoors, gleaning in the fields. Knowing that my efforts would help to feed the hungry with healthy farm-fresh vegetables energized me.
We followed the flags and found the field. I bolted out of the car, excited to get my hands dirty. We were greeted by a Leket worker who told us all about our task at hand: extracting turnips from the ground. He gave us a demonstration, a bucket and left us free to pick.
I pulled out my first turnip, marveling at how easily it parted from the rich soil. Then I pulled out my second turnip, and was shocked by the size and magnificence of its deep purple hues. The next few turnips were so juicy, they actually squirted me with moisture as I bent the stalks and tossed them into my basket.
We were shocked by the Olympian size of some turnips, yet felt a kinship with the cute, smaller turnips. Soon, we stopped our chatter and sank into a meditative ‘picking’ silence, developing our personal techniques and rapport with these rows of turnips. I felt as if I were in a trance. The sun soon warmed my back and brightened the green fields. I plodded on, working my row meticulously, pouring full baskets of turnips into a large dumpster, then watching a tractor cart our turnips away.
When we were called to break for a salad, I had to tear myself away, determined to finish yet another part of my row, dead set on making a dent in this huge field of magnificent produce. Yet the temptation of fresh salad beckoned and I plodded, muddied shoes weighing me down.  Instructed by a Leket worker, a group of school girls had prepared a salad of turnips, broccoli, carrots, beets, rutabagas and garlic with a lemon and olive oil dressing. Freshly picked, it was the most delicious breakfast I had ever eaten. We crunched away, feeling a deep connection to the food we were eating.
As we munched, I met a woman who had been busy in a broccoli field and who begged us to come help. Since we had already cultivated a close connection to turnips, we were ready for a new challenge and eagerly followed her. We were given a knife and a bucket and told how to find prized broccoli florets.  Excitedly, we took our positions and started the hunt. 

Before long, I knew broccoli florets were the most exotic flower I had ever seen. Some were a deep green, and some lighter and yellow; others were small, coyly hiding under leaves, while others were gregarious and huge. We soon identified which were ready for picking and eating, and which should stay on the stalks. Our buckets swelled. We all worked these fields alone yet in unison, filling up the dumpster with emerald green produce that would soon enrich dinner tables across the country.
I loved every moment and obsessively wanted to find another prized broccoli, then finish another row, and fill yet one more bucket.  I could have done this till sunset, yet Shabbat was looming and I had my biological (not botanical) family to tend to.  We felt a special connection to this land and to all the needy families who would soon be tasting the most beautiful, delicious, healthy produce that we had picked on this most satisfying day.
Here are some incredible stats from Leket:
Perishable Food Rescue
18,250,000 lbs (8,275 metric tons) of fruits and vegetables, hot meals, and perishable food was rescued from over 700 producers.
Leket Farm Initiative

3,300,000 lbs (1,500 metric tons) of specially selected vegetables were cultivated and harvested for the needy.
Sandwiches for Kids
1,350,000volunteer-madesandwiches were provided to children at-risk in 113 schools in over 35 cities.

Nutrition Education and Training
• Delivered 38 nutrition seminars attended by 1,000 people 
at risk.
• Sponsored regional nutrition and food safety training attended by representatives from 70 NPOs.
Purchasing Cooperative for Nonprofits
2,600,000 lbs (1,170 metric tons) of highly discounted food was supplied to partner NPOs.

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