The gleaners have been busy.

Even as the temperature has been dropping this fall, an army of volunteers has traveled by bus to more than 30 New Jersey farms, then fanned out into fields to harvest squash, apples, brussels sprouts, leeks, cabbage, and broccoli.

Related stories

The group will bring in more than one million pounds of produce this year as part of the Farmers Against Hunger program, which distributes the food to churches, food banks, pantries, and kitchens to help the needy in New Jersey.

The bounty - which also includes kale, collard greens, spinach, and beans - is donated by farmers who give away their surplus, often closing public pick-your-own fields early to invite in the gleaners, who are students, teachers, Boy and Girl Scouts, and others.

"The population in need is growing as the economic downturn continues to put pressure on people who are struggling to make ends meet," said Kristina Guttadora, director of the New Jersey Agricultural Society, a nonprofit advocacy group, founded in 1781, that has run the Farmers Against Hunger program since 1996.

"Family members are working, but they can't afford what they need and are getting help from churches and other groups," she said. "We're seeing more and more organizations calling on us."

With Thanksgiving this week, tens of thousands of pounds of donated produce have been bagged and are being delivered.

Last week, the effort received a shot in the arm when New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Douglas H. Fisher announced that his department's Food Purchase Program had awarded a $100,000 Gleaning Support Grant to Farmers Against Hunger.

Fisher made the announcement at Eastmont Orchards in Colts Neck, where he joined teachers from the Monmouth County Career Center in Freehold, who were harvesting brussels sprouts to be distributed to agencies preparing Thanksgiving dinner bags.

Farmers Against Hunger uses "volunteers to pick produce that otherwise might have gone to waste and distribute it to emergency feeding agencies," said Fisher. "There are many generous farmers in the state who give back to their communities in this way. It is a win-win for all involved."

The $100,000 grant will pay for part-time drivers, truck fuel, maintenance, and other program expenses, while helping "provide produce at no cost" to 70 community organizations and four distribution sites, said Guttadora.

Farmers Against Hunger was to drop off bags of produce at churches in Camden and Browns Mills on Tuesday, in Mount Holly on Wednesday, and in Trenton on Thursday.

"The entire community benefits from this program," she said, "as gleaning volunteers become connected to New Jersey's farms, as farmers utilize an efficient way of donating their surplus produce, and as the 16 percent of our neighbors in need receive healthy, nutritious food for their next meal."

Farmers Against Hunger often receives about $50,000 a year from private donors and foundations, as well other money from federal block grants. The Agricultural Society's galas help raise funds, too.

Even with financial help, though, nothing would happen without the farmers and volunteers.

The volunteers gleaned at Specca Farms in Springfield Township, Burlington County, in September, October, and this month, harvesting spinach, beets, greens, and cabbage.

"We donate it because it's for a good cause," said farmer Dave Specca, who also serves as assistant director of Rutgers University's EcoComplex, an environmental and alternative-energy outreach center in Bordentown. "It's crops we would otherwise turn under.

"Rather than let it go to waste, it's put to use," he said. "The crop is still in good shape, but will be lost if [volunteers] don't come in to pick it."

The gleaning continues to Christmas, weather permitting, Specca said. Hearty cool-season crops such as collards, kale, cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, spinach, and leeks "can take a lot of cold weather," he added. "Folks are getting produce that's very fresh and wholesome."

About 20 gleaners bundle up against the chilly temperatures and spread out in fields, usually working there for up to three hours, officials said. The volunteers have included church groups, members of 4-H clubs, and employees of Campbell Soup Co. and New Jersey American Water.

"The power of one person is incredible," Guttadora said. "We had a person pick 300 pounds of peppers one time when a frost was coming - and peppers are kind of lightweight.

"With just a few volunteers, we've done 4,000 pounds of cucumbers and, one time, 6,000 of potatoes," she said. "We have strong volunteer support."

Produce donations are accepted from farms, wholesale suppliers, and grocery stores - and usually distributed the same day. Other produce is stored in a refrigerated facility in Hightstown until delivered or picked up.

Donating part of the crop "is a good way to give back," Specca said.

"We're blessed with a farm," he said. "This is the least we can do."

ecolimore@phillynews.com

856-779-3833 InkyEBC