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"Yes, Virginia, One Person Can Make a Difference" (A Day in the Life of a Gleaner)

Posted Dec 17 2013 8:57am

“You take a small or medium?” David Skoke asks me when I enter his meticulous yet modest home in the East Lake section of Atlanta. A t-shirt in each size with the words “Helping Feed Atlanta” sit on the coffee table. I put on one while he finishes up his work as an independent stock trader. He grabs his Samsung cell phone and we head out to the old white van parked in the driveway, a brightly colored cornucopia and the same words from the t-shirts painted on the side. It is 9:30 AM on a Monday and I am assisting him with his “route” today.

David gleans fresh “unsellable but still edible” produce from supermarkets and delivers it to non-profit organizations serving those in need. He currently picks up from four supermarkets, and he delivers to three different organizations every Monday.

If he has food left at the end of the day on Mondays, he drops it at the Atlanta Mission, an emergency and transitional home and soup kitchen right near where the new College Football Hall of Fame is currently being built in downtown Atlanta. But he doesn’t always have much by the end of the day.

“There are a lot of hungry people out there, and no matter how much I get, it’s never enough,” he tells me.

David runs the entire route--over 70 miles round-trip--again on Wednesdays, but that particular load goes to one recipient--Malachi’s Storehouse, a food pantry about 16 miles north of downtown Atlanta that serves more than 100 families a week in what was until recently the newest city in the United States (and, paradoxically, one of the wealthiest in Georgia).

More than 2,000 citizens live below the poverty line in the City of Dunwoody, and many people come from the surrounding area as well. Its tag line is “Everyone is welcome. Everyone is fed.” And they are, not only with donated food but with garden vegetables they help plant and harvest themselves. David’s serendipitous route to becoming a gleaner actually started as a volunteer gardener there.

“And to think this all started with the potatoes,” David reminds me.

It was time to plant potatoes, but we had no funds to purchase any. David, a natural salesman, offered to ask his nearby supermarket’s produce manager if there were any potatoes “with eyes” (sprouts) we could have to plant, and he scored two big boxfuls. We planted some, but had many left over, which the food pantry clients took home to cook (you cut off the eyes and the potatoes are as good as new). We realized that the store would most likely continue to have potatoes with eyes the next week and the next and the next, so David kept going back for more.

The store then started giving David additional just-past-its-prime fresh fruits and vegetables, and before long David was bringing an overflowing carful of fresh food every week. He asked other stores to participate, he bought the old van, and things just grew from there.

Almost two years have passed since those first potatoes, and David is now gleaning about 4,000 pounds (two tons) a month of healthy food that would have become either compost or trash (depending on the store). He pays for the van insurance, upkeep, and gas himself. He has no grand vision--he just takes things as they come. And the food (and the need for it) keeps coming.

So, back to David’s van in the driveway. I hop in, buckle up, and manually push down the button to lock the van. It is 9:35 AM. We worm our way through diverse neighborhoods as I ask David what part of the day he likes best.

“All of it,” he answers. “I like the driving, and the getting, and the giving.” 

9:53 AM. We arrive at Whole Foods on Ponce de Leon Avenue, passing a crowd of men at the shopping center’s entrance waiting to be chosen for day labor or just killing time between homeless shelter and soup pantry hours.

David gets excited to nab a parking spot right near the entrance to the store as that will make loading easy, he taps into Foursquare on his cellphone to record his location, he grabs a wagon, and we breeze through the produce department, where he seems to know every employee. The wagon gets quickly ditched as a big rolling cart filled with boxes of produce appears from the back storage room. Grapes. Broccoli. Cucumbers. Beautiful stuff. Stuff I would happily serve my family.

We load up and hit the road, popping onto Freedom Parkway, to Interstates 75/85, to State Route 400, to Lenox Road. The city skyline blurs in rainy fog. 

10:27 AM. We pull into the small, crowded parking lot at the sleek, silver Whole Foods in the tony high-rise and high-cost Buckhead section of Atlanta where retail space is at such a premium there is an elevator to an underground parking lot as well.

“This is where I see the most women in yoga pants,” David says, his eyes twinkling, although he never oversteps the boundaries while gleaning. Currently single, he tells his dates about his gleaning efforts but doesn’t talk much about it. In fact, he doesn’t talk much about it to anyone. However, he just recently added mention of it to his profile.

“You never know,” he smiles. “Perhaps someone will share this passion.”

What the Buckhead store shares with David, however, is boxes and boxes of those triple-washed greens that make putting the dignity of a dinner salad on the table easy. He also gets big red peppers, lots of still-firm-to-the-touch tomatoes, and potatoes that don’t even have eyes yet.

I try to help David load the van but it becomes clear he has a certain way of doing things so I relegate myself to being the “cart returner” today.

We head up Roswell Road about six miles to the third Whole Foods store for today, in a suburban location just outside what’s known as the “Perimeter,” a circular highway named 285 where, you may have heard, the former Atlanta Braves’ pitcher, Pascual Perez, drove around in circles after missing his exit three times, eventually running out of gas and missing the start of the game in downtown Atlanta one night back in 1982. (That will be less of a problem after 2017, as the Brave’s recently-announced new stadium location will be right off this highway.) 

10:56 AM. David has been granted “back door status” at this location. Like in the other stores, he knows everyone and they know him. He checks in on Foursquare, signs in on the store’s donation ledger, and waits as the workers gather the food. They eventually roll out two carts filled with containers of fresh cut fruit, guacamole, and salsa; bags of “haricot vert” green beans like ones that perhaps graced Thanksgiving tables in nearby mansions just days before; and even containers of asparagus tips priced at more than $16 each.

David selectively puts all these small containers and bags into big boxes he always gathers the day before gleaning, and then arranges the boxes carefully in the van with their intended recipients in mind.

“The school doesn’t take the salsa,” he says. “And I like to make sure every group gets about the same amount of cut fruit.”

I return the carts.

The van pretty full now, we drive onto the Perimeter and head east to the City of Clarkston, considered the most diverse square mile in the United States with more than 50% of its residents legal refugees-of-war from all over the world, for our first delivery. It has been raining off and on all day and the windshield wipers make a rhythmic beat. The windows fog up and David blasts the defroster. I am lucky it’s not summer, as the van has no air conditioning.

“I’d love a refrigerated van.” David tells me. “Not just for summer heat here in Atlanta, but so that I could also pick up and deliver dairy and meat.”

David plugs in his phone and turns on a podcast. He listens to Fresh Air and The Moth and Ted Talkswhile he drives, plus he puts his 11,000 songs on shuffle. Elvis Costello sings Alison, the windshield wipers keep the beat, we’re on the way to feed people, and for a few brief moments, all seems well with the world.

The phone rings and it’s one of the co-leaders of Malachi’s Storehouse, where David won’t be going until Wednesday.

“I’d love to,” I hear him answer her. “But I can’t. I’m in rehearsals for a play that opens Thursday, and we’re scheduled to be on Good Morning Atlanta tomorrow. I’m sorry.”

He hangs up.

“She wanted me to pick up food at the Atlanta Community Food Bank tomorrow morning,” he tells me. But he can’t. He has that performance. He just finished performing in another play, and he’ll be appearing in an AT&T commercial soon as well. He has been acting since college at Ohio State, from which he dropped out. I know how much he loves acting. We originally met when he and my older daughter were in a production of Fiddler on the Roof together. Many years later, he was in another staging of that same play with my younger daughter.

I can’t quite read his mood.

“How do you feel about that request?” I ask. I’m wondering if perhaps he’s starting to feel overextended with the volunteer work.

He doesn’t hesitate.

“I would love to help her if I could. My favorite thing in the world is to help people,” he tells me, and then pauses before continuing. “I didn’t know this about myself before all this. I wasted so much time and energy in my life.”


“Can I mention the drugs?” I ask him.

He replies immediately, “Yes, you can.”

David was a habitual drug abuser and casual dealer when he was younger. His first wife left him because of it. With a car and $1,000 to his name, he moved from Cleveland to Atlanta. His sales skills kept him going in a lucrative job as a telemarketer, even as the drug habit continued. The day his daughter was born to his second wife, he decided to stop. She is now 23 years old.

They are close. They go to dinner and plays and the music festival, Bonnaroo, together. They’re taking a trip to the Pacific Northwest in the new year. He cannot believe she still wants to hang out with her 63-year-old dad. 

11:37 AM. We pass the three brightly-branded Fugees Family buses in the parking lot where the little blue house where it all started still serves as part of the school for the Fugees Academy, the only school in the nation specifically for child survivors of war. With more than 100 students now, the school overflows into rented space in a church, which is where we make our first drop-off. David parks the van and checks in on Foursquare again.

“I’m the mayor here,” he says, smiling, indicating the social media designation when you are the person who checks in most at a particular location.

We see the students in the cafeteria in their crisp white shirts, dark pants, and ties. David’s contact comes out and eyes the food, picking what she knows they can use.

“Our refrigerator has been broken for more than a month, so we can’t take things that need to be chilled,” she explains.

She takes just one box of greens, and a big box each of zucchini and grapes.

“Oh, good, the students can have grapes at snack time today,” she says, clearly pleased. 

12:08 PM. David pulls into a location of the national Indian supermarket chain, Patels. He wants to load up more now that the dropoff at the Fugees has made some additional room. He checks in on Foursquare again and proudly announces he is once again the mayor. He grabs a shopping cart and heads inside, but is sent around the back and told to take whatever he wants. There are boxes of tomatoes and eggplants. He asks one worker if he had a nice Thanksgiving, but a language barrier keeps the conversation from going anywhere. 

12:39 PM. We arrive at the Toco Hills Community Alliance, and I am particularly excited. The new leader of the food pantry here is one of the co-leaders of Malachi’s Storehouse, where we have that garden. She is here most days except Wednesdays, when she goes to Malachi’s. She comes out and we hug and laugh. I’m reminded of how much happiness there has been during this journey, from when I first got involved with community gardening for those in need years ago, and how surprising the upbeat atmosphere at food pantries was to me at first.

She looks through David’s offerings carefully. Just like with the contact at the Fugees, she doesn’t want to take something she’s not sure will get used.

“This is the part where I feel like the Jewish peddler,” David says. “I have some nice onions!”

David can make the Jewish reference, as he was raised in the faith and, in fact, has been “typecast” as the rabbi in more plays than he can count. (Including Fiddler. Twice.) However, he actually defines himself as more Buddhist than Jewish in his daily living, right down to bypassing schmaltz and pastrami for vegetarianism. He crosses religious lines comfortably as he delivers food to several places affiliated with Christian churches or ministries, such as both this stop and the next, as well as Malachi’s Storehouse (which is part of St. Patrick's Episcopal Church) on Wednesdays.

After heading south on Interstate 75/85 and east on Interstate 20, we drive through a neighborhood more boarded up than not.

“Lock your door,” David tells me. He had problems here one time.

We’re in the Bluff, he tells me. I know nothing about it and look it up after getting home. It is an area roughly ten blocks large known for its high crime and illegal drug activity, immortalized in popular culture in the 2012 movie, Snow on tha Bluff, and in many rap music lyrics. It also figures prominently in the Tom Wolfe novel, A Man in Full. It looks like the place you don't want to be, despite its proximity to vibrant, renowned colleges such as Morehouse and Spelman. People who appear down and out are mulling about on the street corners, although David says there are fewer than usual, probably because of the rain. It doesn’t surprise me that where we’re going has a tag line of “providing a lifeline, opportunity, and hope to the last, lost, and least of Atlanta.” 

1:10 PM. We arrive at the gates of City of Refuge, an eight-acre complex with a more-than-200,000 square foot warehouse that has been turned into a variety of service offerings for women and children from this community who are in crisis and need. David shares a friendly wave with the guard and we drive up to a door that says “180 Degree Kitchen, Miracles Served Daily.”

We enter the vast space and find the chef, who joins us in bringing several rolling carts out to the van. He is originally from Boston, and he and David (a big Braves fan) talk baseball a bit while loading up the carts. He can use everything, and David is happy to give it to him.

However, this means there is nothing left for the Atlanta Mission. David wants me to see it anyway and we drive just a couple of miles up the road.

Wait. I recognize this. This is near where I used to work, at CNN Center, when I first moved to Atlanta 24 years ago. Right before David’s daughter was born. Right before he stopped using drugs. Long before I met him.

Sure enough, spitting distance from where a stop for the new Atlanta streetcar is going to be, right up the road from tourist favorites including the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coke, and that cool new ferris wheel, is the Atlanta Mission (formerly known as the Atlanta Union Mission). It serves more than 950 men, women, and children in need daily.

I’m happy to see a robust garden there, punctuated by giant letters that spell the word “hope,” and ask David if we can stop so I can look more closely. 

1:41 PM. As we’re getting out of the van, the chef sees David and waves, excited at the thought that more fresh produce has just arrived. 

David sighs, knowing he’s going to disappoint him.

“I got nothing for you today,” he says, raising his arms up in the air.

He shakes his head as he gets back in the car, and I hear him under his breath saying, “I wish he hadn’t seen me. I got nothin’ for him today. I got nothin’.”

I can tell he feels bad, at least for a moment. At the end of the day, I know he’ll feel good, because he tells me that’s what keeps him going. Kids got grapes and greens and more. People who are hungry and hurting got beautiful, fresh, healthy food that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. An employee at one of the stores got hugs and listening ears when she shared that her brother is out there somewhere, homeless, and perhaps David helped feed him today. I know he wants to do more, but, really, how much can one person do? What is really possible?

That’s the question, isn’t it? That’s always the question.

For more about David's journey from 61-year-old candidate for Homecoming King at a community college just two years ago ( see AJC article here ) to gleaner extraordinaire, see This Is What Passion Looks Like .

eclectic food-for-thought for a changing world
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