On a crisp mid-September morning, the last high clouds are burning off to reveal clear blue sky above the dewy fields. The air smells of the wet earth underfoot that clings to the soles of my rubber boots. In my hands I hold an ovoid the size of a football and the color of a lemon—a spaghetti squash fresh from its vine. Its shell is marred by a few brownish gouges on one side—the work of crows—that make it unsaleable for the farmers who tend this plot of land. For this particular harvest, though, such cosmetic damage is welcomed with open arms.
I’m part of a group of gleaners that helps connect needy populations with free, albeit imperfect, local produce. It’s a mission common to a growing number of grassroots gleaning organizations cropping up all around the country—a modern spin on an ancient practice with biblical roots.
To glean is to gather what is left behind following the main harvest of a field. In times past, a gleaner was a person whose marginal place in society prevented them from raising their own crops or generating income. Ancient Israelite society unequivocally placed the onus on landowners to leave something behind for these vulnerable individuals.
In Leviticus we read, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien” (Lev. 23:22). Deuteronomy contains a similar directive that prohibits landowners from stripping their own vineyards, olive groves, and grainfields. It instructs that the gleanings “shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Deut. 24:19–21).
Gleaning lies at the heart of the story of Ruth, a Moabite widow. Newly arrived in Bethlehem, she is reduced to providing for herself and her mother-in-law by following behind the reapers of the barley harvest. When Boaz—the landowner—notices her tireless dedication to her task, he gives his workmen special instructions: “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean” (Ruth 2:15–16). In an ending befitting a fairy tale, Ruth and Boaz marry, and she gives birth to the grandfather of King David.
Gleaners remained a fixture of agricultural life in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, precariously perched on the very bottom rung of peasant society. Jean-François Millet’s famous 1857 painting The Gleaners depicts three peasant women stooped low and bathed in the golden light of evening as they claw bits of grain from the dark soil. Behind them, we see the generous bounty of the harvest heaped high upon the wagons and piled in mounds as big as houses around the male laborers. The dignity of the gleaners—those poorest of the poor—is the main message here, but we cannot fail to notice the gross inequality of their economic situation.
To glean is to gather what is left behind following the main harvest of a field.
By the time Millet was painting his agrarian masterpieces, gleaning as a way of life was already becoming a thing of the past. A complex array of social forces, including increased privatization of land and mechanization, was coalescing to effectively cast gleaners from the fields.
Over the last century, as our food system has become ever more industrialized, the problem of food waste has ballooned. Researchers estimate that up to 40 percent of food in America goes uneaten, including billions of pounds of produce left to rot in fields each year. Meanwhile, we are far from solving the problem of food insecurity among vulnerable populations.
Pope Francis has made the injustices inherent in our “throwaway culture” a major theme of his pontificate. He writes, “Consumerism has induced us to be accustomed to excess and to the daily waste of food. . . . Let us remember well, however, that whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor, from the hungry!” He exhorts us to find solutions to the problem of waste that also increase our solidarity with the underprivileged.
Enter the modern-day gleaning network, which addresses issues of food waste and food insecurity simultaneously.
A pioneer among the new wave of gleaners, the Society of St. Andrew (SoSA) has been organizing gleans since the 1980s. Born of a spiritual partnership between two Methodist ministers living in Virginia, the society takes its name from the disciple who—in John’s telling of the feeding of the multitude—brings the boy with his few fish and barley loaves to the attention of Jesus. Their mission statement reads in part, “We are people who find abundance where others see scarcity, and we use that abundance to feed all who are hungry.” A YouTube clip from a 2010 SoSA event shows a busload of gangly teens standing shoulder to shoulder, muscling along a seeming infinitude of hefty sacks of gleaned potatoes bucket-brigade style. At the end of the day they’ll have heaved 40,000 pounds of the tubers into trucks bound for regional food pantries.
Researchers estimate that up to 40 percent of food in America goes uneaten, including billions of pounds of produce left to rot in fields each year.
While gleaning for charity is certainly a noble pursuit, critics note that it does little to address the systemic roots of food injustice. Salvation Farms—a Vermont nonprofit that provides backbone support for the state’s gleaning network—focuses on increasing overall food system resilience. Executive director and founder Theresa Snow recently described how her organization grew out of an experience of crisis: Working in an American Red Cross Family Assistance Center in Manhattan following the attacks on September 11, 2001, she was struck by the way countless affected families had been stripped of their ability to meet their most basic needs, one of which, of course, is food.
Another recent crisis, the novel coronavirus pandemic, has laid bare just how poorly our food system handles unexpected stressors. An April 2020 article in the New York Times describes breakdowns in food supply chains caused by the shuttering of restaurants and institutions. Unable to redirect their goods into grocery markets, farmers ended up plowing millions of tons of perfectly ripe vegetables back into the soil. This tremendous waste of food resources was particularly galling coming at a time when many were financially struggling and food banks were picked clean.
Snow says that the larger goal of Salvation Farms is to “make long-term systemic change to reduce the overall vulnerability that our communities have as a whole but don’t realize.” The 2015 launch of its Vermont Commodities Program—which explores ways to aggregate and store large volumes of gleaned food while offering vocational training to members of vulnerable social groups—represents one approach the organization has taken toward this end.
For all her visionary innovation, Snow remains committed to gleaning as a social good. She recently joined the board of the Association of Gleaning Organizations, which supports gleaners around the country. The group is currently working on a first-ever snapshot of gleaning networks in the United States to assess their impacts on communities nationwide.
Whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor, from the hungry!
Snow has found herself in the pulpits of many churches spreading her message. “This is inspiring work for people who join together in worship because they come together to celebrate community. And this is just another form of being in service to each other,” she says.
She recounts a story of a young man who had gotten into legal trouble and was paired with Salvation Farms for his restorative justice work. He worked on Sundays at a farm where members of a local church come to glean before their morning service. One particular woman came often, and Snow has a vivid memory of watching the odd couple made by the youth and the elderly woman “kneeling on the ground together in the lifting fog, having a conversation they never thought they’d be having.” Snow pauses, then goes on in a voice tinged with wonderment, “It keeps coming to my mind that people say this is God’s work. I think being together in community this way is something really sacred.”
This article also appears in the March 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 3, pages 17-18). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/ The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet, Musée d’Orsay, 1857.