Gloria Henderson grew up on a farm, always had a love for picking crops, and noticed from early on that produce would get left behind in the field. Later in life she began gleaning, the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields post-harvest, and she delivers the fresh produce to food pantries and homeless shelters across North Carolina. She didn’t ask anyone to help her; it was just something she wanted to do.
It is a widely held misconception that hunger and extreme poverty will always be with us. The cost of these misperceptions is one life every three seconds—meaning 30,000 die needlessly every day. Gloria’s remarkable act of kindness is profiled in the documentary “Every Three Seconds” that looks at seemingly ordinary people who decide to take extraordinary actions in their communities. You can buy the film here.
TakePart: When you were a kid did you always have that feeling like you’d be giving back? When did you first really get involved?
Gloria Henderson: When I was a kid, I did feel like I would give back. What I do now, gleaning, is something that grew on me when I was a child because my dad was a tenant farmer. I always wanted to go to the field with him to pick cotton or tobacco…but I was allowed to play in my momma’s strawberry patch and my aunt’s turnip patch. We would pull turnips and eat them.
As a teenager, I would gather blackberries…and I never knew how much I enjoyed being in the field. I grew up with hand-me-downs, but they were nice so we shared them with others. Others gave us clothes too, so it’s just what I know.
Why help the hungry instead of other people in need? What is gleaning?
In reality, I do help other people who are in need, but my main focus is those who are in need of food. Food is what sustains life, so you need it to enjoy all else. I want to promote good health…. Everything is connected to a healthy diet. It all starts there, so that’s where I want to be.
Gleaning is going into the fields after farmers have harvested, gathering what is left behind. Back in biblical times, farmers were commanded to leave produce in the field for the hungry to gather.
Who is someone you impacted with your work, and what do they mean to you?
I hear from families all the time who say how much they enjoy the produce and what a lifesaver it has been for them. These families who have so little anxiously wait for the next round of food. It’s how they get by. I often hear “I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t get the fresh produce from you.”
It makes me feel like there are people who appreciate what I do. It makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile…and I want to get even more involved. I get an inner sense of peace and joy, and I know I am helping people. It’s providing them food that they ordinarily would not get because fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive. They are used to opening the can, which, of course, isn’t good for their health. So we aren’t just feeding folks; we are educating them on healthier eating.
How did you get funding, and when did you realize this could be a bigger operation?
When I started passing out produce in the projects door-to-door, there were so many people in need we couldn’t cover everybody. Those in need started saying that they would be willing to glean…. It was all very need driven. Other churches started calling me and asking if they could be involved. They saw what I was doing, and they wanted to do it themselves.
Initially, our funding didn’t exist…. In fact, I still fund a great deal of our work. Occasionally, someone will help me pay for gas to get to and from the fields; all the drivers generally pay for their own. For three years, the church has partially compensated me for costs I incur. It’s a small amount, but it helps.
What has changed, since 20 or 30 years ago, with how people used to give their time and be active in the community versus today?
Twenty to 30 years ago, people helped each other without expecting pay. If you needed something done, people helped you and you reciprocated. That was the meaning of community.
Today, people expect to pay for everything. I understand that economics have changed, so it makes sense, I suppose. Just something like getting my lawn done is twice what it used to cost. Of course, the equipment was different, but the new sophisticated equipment costs more.
What would you say to someone aspiring to do something good in the community? What’s the best way to get started?
Just act. It's that simple! Formulate an initial plan, and do it. Don’t wait for others to join you…. The main thing is just to do it. If it’s worthwhile to you, then it’ll be worthwhile to someone else. You will eventually attract others to the work. People have various talents; be open to what talents they bring to the table.