Sacramento's super seniors

Jeff vonKaenel

While I had heard of the Senior Gleaners, I really did not know much about them. So when Rosemary Babich, one of our advertising consultants, asked me to come with her to meet with them, I put on my publisher’s hat and off we went. I assumed that the Senior Gleaners would occupy a small backroom in a church or community center, but when we drove up to a gigantic warehouse complex on Bell Street, I was confused. When we needed to check in at the guard booth, I was even more surprised. Clearly, the Senior Gleaners were not what I had been expecting.

Senior Gleaners was founded in 1976 when 30 citizens at a local senior center realized that large amounts of wholesome and nutritious food were being wasted while many people were going hungry, so they decided to do something about it. They would glean this surplus food—picking it up at warehouses, harvesting it from home gardens, fields and orchards—and then they would give it to those in need.

Soon, there were hundreds of volunteers bringing in massive amounts of produce. Before long, this all-volunteer organization was distributing millions of pounds of food. With donations and volunteer labor, they built an 80,000-square-foot warehouse, office and cafeteria complex on Bell Street. From this north Sacramento location, Senior Gleaners distributes food throughout the entire region to local food banks, Loaves & Fishes, the Salvation Army, and more than 100 local charities. With a nearly all-volunteer staff, Senior Gleaners has been able to keep its administrative costs very low, around 3 percent.

Taking a tour with Gary J. McDonald, the first nonvolunteer CEO at Senior Gleaners, it soon becomes clear that when they say “senior,” they mean senior. The average age of the volunteers is more than 70 years old. Gary told us about people who at age 90 were receiving their 30-year service pins.

Seniors, who need to be at least 50 years old to sign up for volunteer membership, agree to work for a certain number of hours each week. Membership benefits include a free lunch, and for low-income Gleaners, some free food. But after walking around the complex, I could see that the real benefit is to do great work and to do it with great people. As we walked through the huge warehouse, Gary pointed out a capable senior who was driving a forklift and mentioned that she was on the board of directors. I noticed not only her forklift skills but also her smile.

Gary hopes to recruit more volunteers and more donations to keep the Senior Gleaners delivering much-needed food. There are also volunteer opportunities for those who are not yet seniors (even teenagers). If you choose to volunteer, I believe that you will end up gleaning both food and smiles.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.