Jan and Jerry Althoff – The Foundation of TGP
Hannah and I visit with the founders of The Gleaning Project - Jan and Jerry Althoff - about the why and the how; and the history and future of The Gleaning Project.
Hannah and I rode out to Countryside Gardens a couple weeks ago to talk with Jerry and Jan Althoff and one of Jerry's older brothers, Ken. We wanted to hear about the start of this community effort we’re now lucky enough to coordinate (Hannah in Adams County and Jay in Franklin County). We also wanted to spend some time with these lovely souls and just sit and soak up their goodness.
Jan and Jerry and Ken are some of the hardest working folks you will ever wish to meet. This was not actually a sit down, sip coffee, and chat interview. While clipping a microphone onto Jan, she let us know: “If you don’t mind my working while I’m talking… I can do both.”
“If you don’t mind my working while I’m talking… I can do both.”
Hannah and Jan were potting up seedlings and plugs into larger containers so they could continue to grow, and eventually be sold at their garden center – Countryside Gardens.
Jerry Althoff (pronounced Al-toff) was born in Adams County. His wife, Jan, grew up on a dairy farm two miles from where they live and work today. They “dated just a little bit” at Gettysburg High School (the building that’s now Lincoln Elementary), and remained close acquaintances despite Jerry going away to live in Connecticut and Jan to college in Tennessee. They reconnected after returning home and - with some gentle prodding from Jerry’s mom - were married in 1987.
Jerry’s first real introduction to “how food affected people, or the lack of food, the lack of quality food” came when he took a mission trip to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota in 2006.
Before he left for this trip, Jerry got a postcard in the mail. It had the word "gleaning" on it. And like most people, he said “Gleaning? What is that?" And “like all other junk mail, it was lost, or discarded, or whatever…”
“Gleaning? What is that?”
Jerry wanted to do more than make a single trip a year. He saw the need and felt compelled to respond. He just didn’t know how. He asked a good friend and Lakota minister who lived on the reservation, “What else can I do for you the rest of the year?” The minister responded honestly – “I don’t know.” South Dakota was so far away, and resources (like money and time) are always in short supply.
Jerry returned home, with his eyes open, searching. And he got another gleaning postcard. “Someone’s trying to tell me something,” he thought. So Jerry and Jan “talked about it and prayed about it and talked about it some more… and thought about it, and started calling around.” Here was something they could do, right here, in their own community. This was the opportunity they’d been looking for.
A great opportunity, but one they would have to start themselves. Jan remembers, “Everybody thought it was a good idea, but…” “Everybody’s like, ‘it’s a good idea! When you get it started, let us know.’”
They decided to start the Adams County Gleaning Network through the Society of St. Andrew in 2009. They started at the end and worked their way backwards. First they went to the pantries and asked, ‘Can you use this stuff?’ Enthusiastic responses there led them to next recruit volunteers. They talked anywhere and everywhere that folks would listen. Then they started with the farmers. And they started slow with the farmers. Gleaning was new to everyone.
“What was that like?” Hannah and I asked. What’s it like to start a non-profit community solution from the ground up… Jan, immediately and succinctly answered, “Exhausting.”
What’s it like to start a non-profit community solution from the ground up… Jan, immediately and succinctly answered, “Exhausting.”
Driven by their vision of the limitless potential of gleaning and supported by a network of community volunteers, Jan and Jerry started saving all the fruits and veggies they could. Both would work their standard 50 or 60 hour weeks at Countryside Gardens, then unload their work truck, reload it with gleaning supplies, and set out for another 20 hours a week on evenings and weekends to get good food for other people. Laughing, Jerry answered our question about ‘what was that like?’ – “Like a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.” (No offense please to one-legged men or butt-kicking contestants).
The hours and exhaustion were never the hardest part. The hardest part, for Jan and Jerry (and Ken and Hannah and I), is “when you have that orchard of apples lying out there and you know you don’t have enough hours or manpower to get it.” We still haven’t reached the limit of The Gleaning Project’s potential.
“Gleaning is very important to us,” Jerry declares, “because of it being fresh fruits and vegetables and because of it being waste... 40% of the food in the United States is wasted. Which is crazy. How do you have wasted food and hungry people at the same time? It’s like, get if from Point A to Point B and both problems go away. But you have to have that person in the middle – which is us or you guys [Hannah and I] at this point – to get it from Point A to Point B.
Jan remembers, “We were hampered by the fact that we could only do it in the evenings and weekends… We had to do it when we were already tired… Which meant we couldn’t do as much as we wanted to, and we were limited by daylight hours. We’re happy that fruits and vegetables are getting where they’re going. We’re probably more so the fact that now we have someone that can do this full time.”
Jerry - shy or humble to admit the massive impact that he and Jan have had - will acknowledge being happy for two reasons. First, expansion within the program – “We’ve expanded to Franklin County,” and now have “more hours, more gleaning, more preservation, more education…” Second, that fact that he’s getting calls from folks in Philadelphia, a fellow from Lancaster, a fellow from York county, and elsewhere asking ,“How do I do this?” “Why isn’t anybody over here doing this?” (Great question. When you do, The Gleaning Project is here to help anyway we can...)
“We” is the way the Althoff’s refer to The Gleaning Project. It’s their project. It’s our project. It’s all of South Central PA’s. It’s altogether ours to grow bigger and glean better and help our whole region get more connected and healthy and happy. “We” is the way problems end at solutions.
Jan considers, “It’s hard to comprehend that something we started has become that magnitude…” Not yet satisfied - the problem of hunger has yet to be solved - she wants to see gleaning go further. “Maybe it is time to take it one step further… to the state. And see if we can’t get tax exemption for all the donors…” (Jan, I took this advice… We’re working on it!)
Jan and Jerry Althoff were open to looking for opportunities to make a difference in our community. They were willing to step up and take that change on themselves. They went to the rest of the community first and asked, “Do you want this? Can you use this?” They solicited support from their friends and neighbors and former strangers. They worked so, hard to get The Gleaning Project off the ground, and then had the wisdom and vision to gift it to SCCAP to find full time staff and backbone support to take and run as fast with this project as we possibly can.
Thank you Jan and Jerry. We wouldn’t be here without you. We're running with this project as fast as we possibly can..