On the Road with the Arizona Statewide Gleaning Project

Arizona Statewide Gleaning Project

FOOD LINES Exclusive:  For two days, AAFB's director of communications Brian Simpson rode along in tractor-trailer with the Arizona Statewide Gleaning ProjectDay One was featured in our May 2011 edition of FOOD LINES, while Day Two is a web exclusive.  Both days are brought to life below.  We hope you enjoy this insider look at the Gleaning Project!

Day One

Still dark outside, I arrive at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) facilities truck yard a little before 6:30 a.m. Monday morning. It is here that MCSO generously allows the Arizona Statewide Gleaning Project (ASGP) to park their two rigs and half dozen refrigerated trailers overnight. Coffee in hand, I meet up with ASGP driver Frank Walker, a fit man in his fifties who has generously agreed to let me intrude on his space for the next two days. Despite being an earlier riser, it turns out Frank doesn’t drink coffee as he doesn’t like to make unscheduled stops. Good thing I had ordered the small.

Frank and I had met previously at various AAFB functions, but this was the first time we would be spending some serious time together. He was finishing up his once-through on the truck, checking the lights, the engine and more, making sure we were prepared to hit the road.

I step into the cab of the bright red 2010 International ProStar Eagle, a 10-speed “over the road” rig with 500+ horsepower at its disposal. The spacious interior is modern and well appointed, with a double bunk bed and plenty of bins and cubbies to hold almost anything you could need. Frank shows me his electronic logbook, a satellite linked device made by Qualcomm that looks something like a laptop without the screen. The device doubles as the communication link with Central Refrigeration, the owner of the truck which the ASGP leases, providing Frank with traffic updates and other useful information.

As he starts up the engine, Frank radios in with Sylvia McKeever, the Gleaning Project Logistics Manager, who is usually stationed back at the AAFB office. On any other day except Mondays, Sylvia would radio us our daily assignments, but on Mondays she comes out and meets the drivers in person. As their dispatcher/manager, she feels it important to regularly connect with the drivers in person to keep abreast of any issues they may be running into. Thus, she delivers today’s agenda in person, and we will start the day picking up four pallets of plastic bags from nearby Arizona Bag Company in Phoenix. Frank and I arrive soon after they open at 7:00, and in no time we find ourselves back at MCSO dropping off this trailer and picking up another to take to St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance.

When we arrive, we find the other ASGP driver, Ted Roman, has already arrived. After Frank backs our trailer “into the hole,” otherwise known as the dock, we meet up with Ted to see what he’s up to. Ted’s trailer is being filled with pallets of melons bound for Community Food Bank in Tucson, while our trailer is being loaded with pallets of brand new cardboard boxes, unassembled and stacked flat, bound for Yuma Community Food Bank. Beyond donated and gleaned produce, the ASGP transports a wide variety of other items, including TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program; surplus USDA commodity food) and non-food items utilized by food banks, such as cardboard boxes.

It is here on St. Mary’s dock that Frank tells a story of how, when he first started driving for the ASGP eight years ago, he was delivering food to a food bank in Willcox. He encountered a line of people, many with small children, wrapped all the way around the food bank waiting for his delivery. He says he knew right then he was in the right job and that his driving really was making a difference. Ted nods his head in agreement and relays a similar story from his early days on the job.

After the boxes are loaded, Frank and I head back to MCSO to drop the trailer and hook up to an empty trailer for our trip to Duncan Family Farms in Goodyear. Duncan Family Farms is a longtime supporter of the food banks (featured in the previous issue of FOOD LINES) and they allow the ASGP to use inmates from the nearby Perryville Women’s Correctional Facility to glean their fields for the food banks. Before we head off, we pause for a quick lunch of crackers and fruit. Rather than make an official stop for lunch at a restaurant, Frank prefers light snacking throughout the day to maintain energy.

It’s noon when we arrive to find eleven pallets of freshly gleaned cabbage waiting for us. Activity at Duncan Family Farms is frantic today, with many other trucks coming and going. We’re fortunate to snag an open hole at the dock, and forty minutes later we’re back on the road, cabbage in tow.

Before we leave, Frank receives a radio call from Sylvia, alerting us to four pallets of individual servings of orange juice, donated by a third-party distributor in West Phoenix. Having never been to this particular warehouse, Frank hastily jots down the address and waits for Sylvia to call back with more specific driving directions. Traffic is light, and twenty minutes later we arrive to have the orange juice loaded into the trailer alongside the cabbage.

Its 2:15 now, and we head back to the MCSO yard to call it a day. Being refrigerated, the full trailer can stay overnight, with no risk to the cabbage and orange juice. Tomorrow morning, Ted will pick up the trailer to deliver some of the cabbage to United Food Bank in Mesa, before heading down to Tucson to drop off the remaining cabbage and the orange juice. From there, he’ll head down to Nogales, where the trailer will be filled with fresh produce that has just arrived from Mexico.

I won’t see any of that though, as Frank and I have a date with Yuma and the Yuma Community Food Bank. Those cardboard boxes we picked up earlier will be utilized for emergency food boxes, while we’ll surely be taking something else back to Phoenix for distribution.

Day Two

Day two begins very early, at 5:20 a.m. at the MCSO yard. Gleaning Project driver Frank Walker persuaded me the previous day to come down extra early so we can get a head start on the day and avoid early rush-hour traffic. We are making a round trip to the Yuma Community Food Bank to drop off the pallets of cardboard boxes and other items picked up yesterday, and pick up another trailer for the return trip. Needless to say it’s still very dark.

As Frank finishes up his pre-trek routine, checking in with Sylvia and Central Refrigeration, testing the lights and checking the trailer, I ready myself for what will be decidedly be a methodical trip. Central Refrigeration, from whom the ASGP leases the truck, has the governor set at 63 mph, ensuring no land speed records will be set.

At 6:00 a.m. sharp, we make our way onto the I-10, heading west to state route 85, which we will take south to connect to the I-8 through Gila Bend. Frank makes a joke about needing bathroom stops, but I played it smart today and avoided coffee, knowing that I didn’t want to find myself in an unenviable position of begging Frank to pull over. Turns out he makes a habit of stopping at an I-8 rest area west of Gila Bend anyway, but better safe than sorry as far as I’m concerned.

Traffic is refreshingly light the entire way, although you can imagine how often we get passed by other vehicles. Frank reveals to me that he spent much of his childhood in Yuma and his stories of coming of age, motorcycles, riding ATVs on the nearby sand dunes, and being a trucker make the time pass quickly. Frank makes me swear I will not share these tales in this article—trucker code—so consider my lips sealed! We arrive in Yuma at 9:30 and already there is a steady stream of cars coming in and out of the food bank lot to pick up emergency food boxes.

Outside of a smaller paved lot in front of their administrative offices, the parking lot at Yuma Community Food Bank is an all-dirt fenced-in yard, shared by both cars coming to get food and large trucks like ours making way to their dock. This can sometimes be a bit disconcerting, as a car leaving the yard heads right into our path as we make our way in. It’s a busy morning with a steady stream of cars coming and going, highlighting the extreme need in this community ravaged by high unemployment and slow economic recovery.

Frank docks the rig as I step outside to snap some pictures and stroll through Yuma’s warehouse. The boxes we’re dropping off are used for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which provides commodity food packages for low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women, new mothers, infants, children up to age six, and especially seniors aged 60 or older, who make up the majority of those enrolled in the program. CSFP commodities do not provide a complete diet, but rather focus on nutrients typically lacking in the diets of the particular target population.

Even though a forklift quickly begins to unload the CSFP boxes, the food bank has already pre-loaded the return-trip trailer for us, and Frank simply has to unhook our truck and connect to this new trailer. It contains 24 pallets of pre-packaged romaine lettuce salad mix neatly stacked all the way to the ceiling. It’s an impressive sight to see. The load weighs 19,911 pounds, which is amusing to think about—lettuce doesn’t really weigh anything, right?

Few people realize that vast majority of the lettuce eaten in the United States comes from the Yuma area, where multiple commercial farms located in Yuma County and Imperial County, California specialize in growing leafy greens. Many varieties of melons also come out of this area, but 2011 has proven to be a down year for melon production.

With the romaine salad mix all ready to go, our stop in Yuma proves to be brief. We’re about to take off when Frank realizes that he doesn’t have the bill of lading for the load. He runs back inside the food bank to retrieve it, as we can’t be on the road without proper documentation of the load we’re carrying. The salad mix is destined for United Food Bank in Mesa, which will distribute it to agencies in Mesa and the East Valley, as well as to those in parts of Pinal, Gila, Navajo and Apache Counties.

Traffic remains light as we make our way back. For a man used to doing his job solo, Frank continues to be amazingly generous in answering my questions and sharing stories. Even at our slow speed, the time passes quickly and we find ourselves back in the MCSO yard a hair before 2:00. The salad mix will stay here overnight, kept cool in the refrigerated trailer, until Ted picks it up to take to United in the morning. All that’s left to do is a final radio check-in with Sylvia at the AAFB office and a check-in with Central via his electronic log book.

My time with the Gleaning Project is done, a childhood dream to ride around in a big-rig fulfilled, but for Frank and Ted, there’s still another three days left in the week to keep moving food and supplies to food banks throughout Arizona. I’m left with a sense of satisfaction in what I’ve observed over these two days, but the continuing needs of families struggling with hunger and poverty provide a sobering reminder that the work of the Gleaning Project is never done.