updated 10/24/2004 4:59:38 PM ET 2004-10-24T20:59:38

Volunteers fanned across Texas farm fields to pick up sweet potatoes missed by mechanical harvesters, joining a national network to feed the poor with produce that might otherwise go to waste, from California oranges to Indiana beans and Florida squash.

In this rural community about 75 miles east of Dallas, the weekend effort is called the Texas Yam Jam.

“It’s rewarding, it’s a good gig, just to come out here and glean for the people who might not be able to eat if we hadn’t actually done this,” said Jay Wilbur, 43, from Panola, near the Louisiana state line.

The work is overseen by the Big Island, Va.-based Society of St. Andrew, an ecumenical organization with strong United Methodist ties. The ministry, in its 25th year, is named after the disciple who figured in the New Testament story of how Jesus Christ fed 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes.

1.4 billion servings
The society estimates that over the past quarter-century, 250,000 volunteers have gleaned 461.5 million pounds of food that would have been dumped, plowed under or left to rot — but instead became 1.4 billion servings of food donated to the hungry.

“In the Old Testament, it talks about leaving the corners of your field for the ailing and the poor. We’ve just kind of taken that ancient biblical practice and modernized it,” said Carol Breitinger, the society’s spokeswoman.

This month, for example, Boy Scouts and other volunteers collected green beans from a northern Indiana field that a cannery had rejected because of frost. In Lake Park, Fla., along the Florida-Georgia line, a church group picked up bushels of leftover cucumbers and squash.

“Our food banks are screaming for fresh produce and this is actually about the least expensive way we can get fresh produce,” said Randy Groce, 54, president of the Texas advisory board for the Society of St. Andrew.

Groce brought 900 orange mesh bags — each able to fit 50 pounds of sweet potatoes. Volunteers stuffed them with tens of thousands of roots as small as a thumb and as large as a submarine sandwich.

“Mom, what does a sweet potato look like?” inquired Eliza Allen, a 5-year-old in pigtails whose older sister, Jade, 8, skipped a soccer game for the Yam Jam.

“It’s like a big potato that’s orange,” replied her mother, Andrea Allen, 35, a member of the First United Methodist Church of Celina.

Wilbur, a video game company executive, welcomes the annual effort. “I’m either on a plane or riding a desk,” he joked. “It’s good to get your hands dirty.”

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