Feeding the soul

Gainesville Harvest's Frances Leslie offers healthy meals and a warm heart to the area's poor

Frances Leslie is the director of Gainesville Harvest, an organization that collects leftover and unused food from restaurants, hotels, schools, caterers, individuals and other organizations and redistributes it to charitable organizations. "We want to make our services available so that people will feel the warmth." Leslie says. "We want to serve so that they won't be isolated."

BRIANA BROUGH / The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, August 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 31, 2005 at 9:41 p.m.

Frances Leslie has little sympathy for people who refuse to help themselves, those who continue to accept handouts without bettering their position.

But she has great empathy for the helpless, the working poor, the folks who have been dealt a losing hand in life.

Because she's been there, and she got out.

As director of Gainesville Harvest, she deals with hunger, poverty and homelessness every day. But she also deals with hope, soaring spirits and selfless giving.

Gainesville Harvest is a non-profit organization begun in 1991. Its army of 250 volunteers sweeps through town every day, collecting unused and leftover food from dozens of restaurants, hotels, grocery stores and caterers. This bounty is then distributed at nearly 50 sites, including day-care centers, shelters, churches and temporary housing. About a million pounds of food is "recycled" each year this way.

"Gainesville Harvest is such a well-developed plan; it is such a marvelous thing to do. You have volunteers who are willing to get up at 5 a.m. or work late at night to collect and distribute the food. No matter what you do in the board room, you can't kill that infrastructure. The volunteer base in Gainesville and Alachua County is so strong, even if we (board members) do anything wrong, there are good people who believe in the purpose and hold it all together. Volunteers are the glue. The other glue is the donors. They are the best, we have some marvelous donors."

Sitting in her office on the second floor of the the beautifully restored D'Acosta House on NE 1st Avenue, with gleaming wooden floors, lace curtains on the windows and a thoroughly modern flat-screen computer on her desk, Leslie said she feels blessed to work in such surroundings.

But she also spends time in the trenches, setting up meal sites and collecting and distributing food. And what she sees all around her is all too familiar.

As a young woman in her 20s, a divorce found her packing her three small children and all their belongings in a U-Haul and heading straight to Atlanta from Fort Lauderdale.

She spent 23 years in Atlanta, taking distressed properties and turning then into suitable rentals for absentee owners. She then returned to Alachua County - where she was born and raised - in 1993 after her daughter died of an aneurism. Leslie cared for her young grandson for a year and a half before he was adopted by her other daughter. Leslie was on food stamps at the time.

She got a job with Florida First Start, a program for at-risk children up to age 4, as a parent educator, teaching social and job skills and parent-child interaction. She then started up Caring and Sharing, a clothes closet. It expanded with a cooking entity, teaching impoverished families how to save money.

She joined Gainesville Harvest about five years ago, and she became executive director two months ago. She has firm ideas of where she hopes the organization goes. "Our organization has gone through so much, but the best thing that happens to nonprofits is that they go through changes. They need to start looking outside the window. Often you make changes, but they never leave the board room. . . . And we went beyond just getting business people on the board, adding members who are from the arena of health care, nutrition, social services. We have people who can bring these experiences to the table, and have more than pie-in-the-sky ideas."

Another change is to increase the nutritional value of the food Gainesville Harvest distributes. "When you're dealing with the poor, you aren't just feeding them. There's the health issue - we are dealing with expectant mothers, children with obesity and diabetes, grandparents who have nutrition and health problems who are raising their grandchildren. Gainesville Harvest has to look at this. We need to get more fruits, vegetables, juice and milk out there, more whole grain and pumpernickel and less white bread."

She also feels strongly that the recipients of the food should have more social interaction.

"We are planning on setting up hot kitchens, to better use cooked food donated by hotels and restaurants. It's not just so you can have a hot meal, but have it served in an area where a family can go inside where it is warm - not just in temperature, but in atmosphere and ambience. It will be a way to keep families together. And if it is in a church, pastors can offer counseling, if people want it.

"We need to get these children out of the house, get dressed, get a bigger view of the world and don't get them used to having handouts. Even if they have to stand in line waiting for food, they will have conversations, and they will find out they are not the only person who is poor. There are people in worse conditions. We have to start helping one another. If we don't, it's like putting a Band-Aid on a big sore that you will never be able to cover or cure."

She also plans to to add afternoon sites. Most of the food is distributed by 10 a.m., but she wants to add sites near schools, where parents can access the donated food when they pick up their children. "We do not want to punish the working poor."

Leslie wants to help people pull themselves out of their circumstances and not just be receivers. "We need to make people responsible for their own actions, make people who are not disabled or elderly pick up the food at sites. We can't be like Santa Claus, the milkman, delivering food to homes. These same people will then pass you going out shopping. We can't continue to enable people."

Kent Vann, executive director of St. Francis House, a homeless shelter, said "Gainesville harvest provides a lot of baked goods and bread. What we don't use for lunch we place on a rack and clients who visit can take some when they leave."

He said he and Leslie are discussing adding more deliveries and more items, such as juice and bacon, which he can serve for breakfast to people who stay overnight. "It's working pretty well."

Sites aren't all focused on poor people. Others include Winn-Dixie Hope Lodge, Arbor House, Meals on Wheels and Al'z Place, an adult day-care center for Alzheimer's patients run by ElderCare of Alachua County.

Judy Johns, recreational therapy volunteer coordinator, said "Gainesville Harvest is phenomenal. We couldn't do some of the things we do without them. They really help fill the nutritional needs of our clients." She said they get deliveries four or five times a week of bagels, doughnuts, pastries, sandwich fixings and bread. Fruit is made into smoothies for a healthy afternoon snack.

"The volunteers are so dedicated, some have been doing it for years. They recognize the importance of sharing. And Frances, she's doing a terrific job."

Leslie, 57, comes from a family of 16 children and attended Alachua County Training School and Mebane High School. Her blues, jazz and gospel singing voice was discovered early and she obtained a musical scholarship at Bethune-Cookman College. "Being classically trained helps you sing different musical genres." She quit after a year and a half "to do the family thing."

Her latest favorite singer is K.T. Oslin, who sings country. "I love lots of different music. Lately I've hooked up with someone who plays Kentucky bluegrass, and I inject it with a little soul." She has her own band, Graummy P, which plays venues such as the Downtown Plaza Friday night series.

But during the day, she's all business. "There are times in the universe you are put into places and you think it's for other people, but actually it's for you. There's another purpose. I am a true believer, spiritually, that I've never gone somewhere where there wasn't a purpose for me. My sitting here is part of that design."

Marina Blomberg can be reached at 374-5025 or blombem@gvillesun.com

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