Employees from the U.S. Department of Agriculture ventured into the fields at the department's Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville last month and came out with a hill of beans. A big one. Five hundred fifty pounds of green beans, to be exact.

That quarter-ton haul, while impressive, represents just a smidgen of the produce harvested each year nationwide under a low-profile federal program to get crops grown during the course of federal research to the hungry. The program authorizes the more than 100 USDA-administered Agricultural Research Service (ARS) facilities to distribute the produce to soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other food distribution organizations.

The produce-picking effort, referred to as "gleaning" after the biblical practice of allowing the poor to collect the remains of crops left behind by farmers, is part of a larger, agencywide effort to save surplus food to fight hunger. The USDA's Farm Services branch, for instance, has helped save as much as 7 million pounds of food since Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman kicked off the food recovery effort in 1997, according to agency estimates.

While just one slice of a larger pie, the ARS program is important to many providers of food to the poor and homeless in the Washington area and elsewhere, because it creates a regular flow of fresh produce to supplement the prepackaged food that dominates charity groups' supplies.

"Beltsville has been very aware of the need, and they are really helping make fresh food possible for the needy," said Carol leClair, a board member at Fairfax-based Food for Others, which distributes as much as 100,000 pounds of food a month. "It's great to have all this fresh produce. Otherwise, it's a lot of canned food that we are distributing."

Tom Chandler, executive director of the Washington Area Gleaning Network, which organizes volunteers to pick excess crops from farms across the mid-Atlantic region for distribution to Martha's Table, D.C. Central Kitchen and elsewhere, said his group picked about 20,000 pounds of produce from Beltsville this year, 10 percent of the network's total.

"We've gotten quite a lot from them. String beans, tomatoes, sweet corn, and it's all been very, very good," Chandler said.

Chandler noted that the program takes advantage of food that might otherwise go to waste: "It's all at taxpayer expense to do this research, so if we can recover food to serve the poor, that's an added benefit."

Overall this year, the Beltsville center has produced 30 tons of produce, according to the director of ground operations, Ted Currier, who offered a tour of the research fields on a recent Indian-summer afternoon, the ground steamy and pungent with freshly turned, fertilized earth.

That total is somewhat lower than in recent years, Currier said, because several major studies on tomatoes were completed last year, meaning fewer new plantings this year. The 7,000-acre Beltsville facility yielded 39 tons last year, including 27 tons of tomatoes and 12 tons of corn and other produce. Across the country, smaller USDA research fields provided an additional 18 tons of food, including 10,000 eggs and untold scores of potatoes.

The Beltsville center only distributes produce, but there is talk of extending the program to the animals studied at the center. Beltsville researchers work with, among other animals, livestock and poultry, including turkeys, which would come in handy for homeless shelters and soup kitchens, particularly at this time of year.

"If they could work it out, it would be a good idea," said Currier. "But it's difficult to turn live birds or live cattle into something the homeless could use."

Most of Beltsville's fields, tucked away behind the strip malls and gas stations of Route 1, are picked clean by now, and such "cover crops" as soybeans and winter wheat have been planted to conserve the soil.

The only produce that remains is a small plot of broccoli and cauliflower. Volunteers from Food for Others will harvest that on Monday, completing the gleaning process for the year.

Most of the work at the research centers is intended to help farmers grow more abundant and durable crops and to test more environmentally friendly pesticides and mulches. The gleaned crops may in fact be healthier for consumers than what's at the grocery store, said Joel Berg, who oversees the USDA's anti-hunger activities.

Berg noted that the research centers do not allow gleaning of genetically modified food or food that has been treated with untested, experimental pesticides. Said Berg: "Our motto is, 'When in doubt, compost it.' "

CAPTION: Ted Currier of the Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville checks on a field of broccoli that will be harvested by volunteers from a local food charity.