Gleaning – An Old Testament Directive Becomes a Growing Trend in Helping the Hungry

By Alexandra Beane — December 25, 2012

Most of us are aware that there is a great deal of food wasted every year, while people all over the world are going hungry. One way of dealing with that sad irony is gleaning, and it is something that people old and young, and groups large and small, are doing to help ensure that at least some of these wasted resources go to people who need them. At this time of year, when we are celebrating what we have with those close to us, and finding ways to share the holiday spirit with those less fortunate, it seems appropriate to explore what  USA Today has called “one of the growing trends in the struggle against hunger in America.”                                                     
Gleaning is a concept that goes back to the Old Testament. Farmers are told not to pick their fields and vineyards clean, but to leave some remains for orphans, widows and foreigners. Gleaning is also mentioned in the Torah and the Koran. Gleaners have been portrayed in a number of paintings throughout the centuries, mostly as women, bent over pulling crops out of the ground. Today, gleaning organizations, many of them affiliated with churches and other religious groups, continue the tradition in to help feed the hungry and reduce waste.

Gleaning is simply the act of collecting excess fresh foods from farms, gardens, farmers markets, grocers, restaurants, and other sources to provide it to those in need. The idea of gleaning is to harvest produce that would otherwise be left in the field, either because the harvesting equipment does not capture it, or because it is not attractive enough to be sold.

The Society of St. Andrew, a grassroots, faith-based, hunger relief non-profit organization, has worked with donors, volunteers, and farmers for over 30 years to “bridge the hunger gap between the billions of pounds of food wasted every year in this country and the millions of Americans who live in poverty” by gleaning “nutritious excess produce from fields and orchards after harvest” and delivering them to people in need.

In an interview with NPR, a representative of the Society of St. Andrew noted that “96 billion pounds of food – this is pre-consumer food – goes to waste in this country.” Gleaning groups co-ordinate with farmers to come in and harvest the food, which they then provide to hunger-relief organizations. Generally it is volunteers, young and old, who gather the “gleanings,” and sometimes that is whomever a group can pull together on short notice. Time is of the essence because there is a short period from the time the farmer or grower decides what he won’t sell, and the time it goes bad. Farmers who allow gleaners to come in get the satisfaction of feeding the hungry, and a tax deduction as well.
Gleaning is not just about collecting food from farms. A Toronto, Canada group called Not Far From the Tree organizes volunteers to pick fruit from trees when there is too much for the owner to harvest alone. The fruit is divided in thirds among the tree owner, the volunteers, and donations to food banks, shelters, and nearby community kitchens.

According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) “40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that “roughly 50 million Americans couldn’t afford to buy food at one time or another over the previous year and that 17 million were chronically forced to skip meals.” In June 2012, a record 46.7 million Americans were receiving food stamps. According to USA.gov, about 13.5 million people in the U.S. live in food deserts, which are low income areas with limited access to large grocery stores. (See GLG’s article “American Grocery Chains Taking Steps to Fight Food Deserts, and Whole Foods Joins the Battle” for more information on food deserts.)

The USDA has even published aLet’s Glean! Toolkit, as part of President Obama’s United We Serve initiative. It provides guidelines for starting a gleaning program. It also lists a number of organizations that participate in food rescue/recovery programs. According to USA.gov, about 13.5 million people in the U.S. live in food deserts.
In an interview with TV/radio host Stephanie Miller in November 2012, award-winning filmmaker Daniel Karslake, discussed his documentary Every Three Seconds. The title refers to the fact that every three seconds someone in the world dies from extreme poverty, and that person is usually a child. One of the primary causes of this “silent tsunamiis hunger. Karslake, who calls hunger “probably the worst torture there is,” says that the amount of food wasted in the U.S. alone could “feed our hemisphere.”
The film tells the stories of five “regular” people, from a little boy to senior citizens, who decided to become part of the solution. One of these people is a 70 year-old North Carolina woman who demonstrates just how much one person can do. Karslake explained that she started her own gleaning project, and a couple of times a week, she gathers church friends, local Marines, and anyone she can get to go to local farms to glean crops left behind in the fields. He told of the day she and a few volunteers gathered 17,500 pounds of organic corn (65,000 meals) in just a couple of hours from what looked to Karslake like a field that had already been picked clean. They delivered the corn the same day to homeless shelters and food pantries.

There are a number of places to go to get a list of gleaning projects, including Village Harvest, Ample Harvest, or Society of St. Andrew. The Let’s Glean! Toolkit also provides a list of resources. Local churches and other religiously-affiliated groups are also a good place to look, particularly for people who live near farms, orchards, or vineyards. An Internet search for gleaning, food recovery or harvesting programs in your area is also a good way to find a group to which you can donate time, transportation, and/or money.

Courtesy Images:  Plant Green Discovery, Society of St. Andrew and Food Safety News 

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