WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Amaya Clews was aiming high — 20 feet to be exact.
The 9-year-old girl, dripping in sweat from the morning humidity, was hungry to glean the red and yellow mango towering above her.
Almost as hungry as 57-year-old Gregory Morgan was to eat it.
Mangoes are a "blessed" treat for Morgan, a sweet distraction in his hard times. He can't make a living off construction anymore. A stroke in 2017 impaired his speech, mobility and hearing.
Morgan's grocery budget is $15 a week. So he waits hours outside the Children's Outreach Inc. food pantry in Riviera Beach for fresh produce.
"That's all I can afford," he said.
CROS Ministries volunteers like Amaya glean fruits and vegetables for him and others who rely on food pantries across Palm Beach County.
Amaya's mango was one of about 800 pounds picked at a CROS gleaning June 22 at a grove owned by the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority off Jog Road in suburban West Palm Beach. CROS has made combating food insecurity — when people aren't receiving proper nutrition and are unsure when they'll eat next — one of its missions.
Local programs have fought hunger for decades, but they agree the number of food-insecure people is increasing in the county, one of Florida's wealthiest.
The main culprit? That nutritious food isn't available to them or is too costly for their strapped budgets.
In 2018, Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger-relief network, reported that nearly 200,000 Palm Beach County residents — about 1 in every 7 — are food-insecure. It found that after they pay their bills, they're about $20 short every week on what they need to feed themselves properly.
One in four children in the county live below the poverty line, and about 60 percent of elementary school children are on free or reduced-price lunch programs, Feeding America said.
But the ancient practice of gleaning, which CROS Ministries has followed for nearly 20 years, is providing a modern solution. Volunteers farm areas that already have been commercially harvested, or work fields where crops wouldn't be profitable, to gather the fruits and vegetables that remain and give them to the hungry.
It's literally biblical, dating to the first books of the Hebrew Bible, and some Christian kingdoms through the ages have commanded it as an entitlement of the poor. Today, it's one way Children's Outreach can provide fruits and vegetables to people in need.
"When you are fortunate enough to have all the luxuries and things we have been bestowed, it's important to share," said Kuki Chawla, Clews' grandfather, who was with her the day she gleaned the mango.
June 22 was Clews' family first time gleaning, but hardly the first for CROS, whose program began in 2003 and is one of the largest in Florida, said Gibbie Nauman, director of development for the Lake Worth-based organization. Its work has drawn national attention. Members spoke about making partnerships work at an international gleaning symposium in Seattle.
So far this year, CROS has harvested more than 580,000 pounds of produce. That's about the weight of 2.3 million McDonald's Quarter Pounders or 23 school buses. It's also a record-breaking number for CROS — and 2019 isn't finished.
—What's food insecurity?
Food-insecure households don't always lack food.
It can be a matter of prioritizing bills over groceries, said Nancy Peterson, a nurse at Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach who helps at Children's Outreach.
"These people are on a fixed income. Food is a luxury," Peterson said. "You have to fill the bellies of your children."
She broke it down like so: If one's grocery budget is $5, would they rather buy a couple of bananas or dozens of cheap microwavable dinners?
A full stomach trumps nutrition in the short term, she said, even if it's the worse choice over the long term.
Peterson cooks for older people who don't have family or transportation. If they can't get to the store, they can't eat, she said.
High blood pressure and cholesterol are effects of eating "toxic boxed foods," she said.
"Fresh food is paramount to them," she said.
Capurnia Boston Larkins, the founder and director of Children's Outreach, sees food insecurity daily and has for 30 years.
Larkins, 56, is diabetic. She underwent countless surgeries, including a foot amputation. But every Monday and Tuesday, she hands out free food to the community. Larkins wishes she could be open every day, but doctor's appointments fill the rest of her week.
People wait for hours in the Florida heat. Larkins said she started putting chairs out to accommodate them. She said everything goes fast, so regulars know to arrive early.
Her setup resembles a farmer's market. She wants people to feel comfortable.
On Tuesday morning, dozens perused the fruits and vegetables. Conversations about watermelon and cantaloupe buzzed among patrons.
Grains, dairy and eggs also help fill the tables. But just about everyone left with a fruit or vegetable.
Volunteers, some disabled, some doing community service hours and some just for pleasure, ran the show.
Old-school jazz, played by a volunteer DJ, sets an upbeat mood.
"Calling on his Mercy" is Larkins' favorite tune. It's poetic and smooth. Drops of tears trickle down her face. But Larkins grins from ear to ear.
"It brings me such joy to see all these people here," she said. "I have chills right now."
Everyone who walked by her offered an embrace, as if the hug itself was the price of their groceries, as everything is free.
Food insecurity doesn't discriminate, she said. If anything, she said it's gotten worse.
Gleaning increases the fresh fruits and vegetables people receive. But it's not always enough: Food pantries need more money to feed more, she said.
Hunger is there, she said. Sometimes, it just goes unnoticed.
—At its roots
Armed with a metal harvesting pole, CROS Ministries volunteers fought hunger in the heat and humidity of June 22.
Their battle tactic was to fill as many boxes with mangoes they could. The fruits then went to the Palm Beach County Food Bank, and from there to programs like Children's Outreach.
Mangoes aren't the only item harvested, said Keith Cutshall, CROS Ministries' director of gleaning. Lettuce, cucumbers, green peppers, sweet corn and squash are other fan favorites. The season stretches nearly year-round.
Farmers can't harvest everything grown, Nauman said: "If we weren't there, it would just be plowed under."
The program gleans with seven different farmers in Palm Beach County, Cutshall said. CROS workers help maintain the grove they worked June 22 and, in return, can harvest as they please.
"It's a win-win, really," Cutshall said.
That Saturday morning, 10 volunteers gleaned in the beating heat, nudging mangoes into nets attached to the ends of the metal poles.
Volunteers wore clear gloves to protect themselves from the itchy residue, and placed each mango in a cardboard box.
Some were first-time gleaners. Others, such as 49-year-old Mark Moza of West Palm Beach, were experts.
A field supervisor, Moza gleans almost every weekend. He's done so for the past decade.
The direct impact of gleaning makes him feel like every fruit he picks helps combat food insecurity.
"You have people that are working, but it's hard if you may not have a job that makes ends meet," Moza said. "We help fill the gap."
Over the course of two hours, Moza, Cutshall, Nauman and the team of volunteers rid the green trees of their red and yellow decor.
One by one, each fruit just as important as the next.
"Every bit counts," Nauman said.
—Where it counts
There's never a set amount of gleaners or pounds expected from an event, Cutshall said. The program runs on volunteers with a handful of staff overseeing them.
Florida's weather ultimately determines the quality of the season, he said. Overall, CROS did well this year. But mangoes, in particular, weren't as bountiful.
About 30,000 pounds of mangoes were picked in favorable years, Cutshall said. About 10,000 is the predicted amount for 2019.
But that doesn't deter Cutshall and his team. It doesn't deter Larkins and her team, either. They believe every donation, minute and mango matters.
It matters to Gideon, a 5-year-old from Riviera Beach, whose grandfather, Walter King, goes to Children's Outreach.
The mango is more than Gideon's favorite fruit. It provides nutrients he needs to lead a healthy childhood.
King said the public is aware, but not entirely, that the county is fighting hunger.
"It's happening right here," he said.
It matters to Nico Cleveland, 46, of West Palm Beach, who credits the fresh produce from Children's Outreach with helping him fight obesity and other health issues and lose 120 pounds.
It's an issue that isn't as talked about in the public as it should be, Cleveland said.
"The produce helps me do what I do," Cleveland said. "It's a godsend."
Information from: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, http://www.pbpost.com