San Diego Despite the early hour, the group of seniors standing on the sidewalk in front of Ann Evans's home in Del Cerro joke, tease, and laugh with each other. It's 7:20 in the morning, and Natalie Ingmanson, Denny Rathmann, and Ann Evans, all in their 70s, await the arrival of Lonnie Ruskin. The four are members of Senior Gleaners, a group of volunteers, aged 55 and older, who collect food that grocery stores and supermarkets have just taken off the shelves and distribute it to service organizations. When Ruskin arrives, they'll climb into the beaten-up, blue-and-gray Dodge van that looks out of place parked in front of Evans's house in this upper-middle-class neighborhood.
A minute or two after 7:30, a late-model Honda swings around the corner onto Evans's street. "There she is," says Evans, whose light blue eyes, contrasted with her short silver hair, appear both playful and serious. Ruskin, the junior member of the group at 57, receives a portion of teasing for being a couple of minutes late as she walks up to the group. Then the three women squeeze into the lone bench seat in the would-be 15-passenger van. Their feet rest on black plastic garbage bags full of bagels. Rathmann pulls himself up into the driver's seat. The big van fires right up but creaks and squeaks as Rathmann steers it out of Del Cerro down College Avenue and onto westbound Interstate 8. "When we first started gleaning in 1992, my husband and I used our own Vanagon for a long time, but it was not that sturdy. It wasn't intended for hauling. We were carrying way too much weight in it and having lots of repairs done. So that is when Bill and I considered looking into some used-car lots."
(Bill is Evans's late husband. A retired San Diego Union editor, he was found dead of dehydration and exposure on August 10 in Adobe Falls Park a mile from his home. He had Alzheimer's disease and had been missing since July 20.)
"The Auto Trader wasn't being published then," Evans continues, "so we just kind of had to look around in the used-vehicle ads in the paper. We finally got this vehicle over on Miramar Road at one of those corner car lots. So we got someone who knew something about vehicles to go over and look at the vans, and that is when we purchased this van. We paid around $4000."
The Gleaners have since purchased a second van, which today is undergoing repairs.
Denny Rathmann, a mirthful man of about 70 dressed in denim shorts, a golf shirt, and a cap, trades witticisms with the women in back as he steers the big vehicle from I-8 onto Interstate 15 north. The first stop of the day will be a shopping center in Scripps Ranch with a supermarket, coffeehouse, and bagel shop; they all donate items to the Gleaners. Asked why he's here, Rathmann answers, "Well, when I retired a few years back, my wife and I sat around at home for a few days and then we said to each other, 'We've got to get up and do something.' We saw something in the paper about the Gleaners, so we gave them a call and started coming out. When she died a couple of years ago, I kept on coming."
"She was a great helper," Evans recalls, "and she was a very energetic person. But all of a sudden she got lung cancer, and it just progressed quickly. She worked as long as she could, just like my husband Bill worked as long as he could. We have lost other Gleaners over the years, and they were all active until they just got too sick. I think it says something when they want to try to keep going."
At about 8:00, the group reaches the Scripps Ranch shopping center. Rathmann drives around behind the stores and parks among the delivery trucks. With just a little grunting as they lower themselves out of the tall van, the Gleaners snap into action. While Rathmann and Evans head into the store to meet the manager on duty, Ruskin and Ingmanson pull the 20 or so banana boxes out of the back of the van, laying them out on the blacktop behind the van. Most of the chatter and joking ceases while they work. Before five minutes have passed, Rathmann and Evans return with three shopping carts in tow. Bakery goods make up the majority of the haul: heavily frosted cakes, fruit pies, danishes, and cookies. The rest is sliced bread, baguettes, and rolls. Immediately, the women start packing the items into the boxes they've laid out while Rathmann, grabbing a handle that someone has bolted to the rear doorjamb of the van, carefully hoists himself up. Once he's in, the women start to hand him the boxes they've packed very tightly. He in turn stacks them neatly behind the seat, four high. The precision of packing and stacking bespeaks experience. As Rathmann stacks, Ruskin takes a cart to the back doors of a bagel shop and coffeehouse, returning with half a cart of unwrapped bagels and pastries. These she places in grocery bags, which in turn go into boxes that Rathmann places on the stack.
Normally, the Gleaners would move on at this point, but today the supermarket manager has a few carts full of nonfood items for the Gleaners. Rathmann is sent to fetch them.
"Ann, he wants you to come in and sign off," Rathmann says, returning with a couple of carts full of meat thermometers, egg timers, cheap kitchen utensils, and the like. The document Evans signs releases the market from any responsibility for the items they've donated. With the van packed and headed south on I-15 again, she explains that the signing is redundant. "California has a Good Samaritan law that protects us and the people who donate to us from lawsuits should someone get sick from eating the food we distribute."
Evans, a retired Lutheran minister, is the engine that drives the Senior Gleaners. Where most of the members go out once a week, Evans goes six and sometimes seven days a week. "Usually, there's a Gleaner who will sub for me on Sunday," she says, "so I can go to church."