Grapes of Wrath, Fruit of Philanthropy
January 11, 2010 9:25 AM   Subscribe

My grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression, hung an image of Millet's "The Gleaners" on their living room wall. I never made the connection between those two things until I started reading about the modern gleaning movement.

Gleaning is the traditional practice of picking over a field after the harvest has been collected. As the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension observes, "Food recovery is the collection of wholesome food for distribution to the poor and hungry. It follows a basic humanitarian ethic that has been part of societies for centuries. We know that “gleaning,” or gathering after the harvest, goes back at least as far as biblical days. The term “field gleaning” refers to the collection of crops either from farmers’ fields that have already been mechanically harvested or from fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest."

The idea of not letting viable field crops go to rot after the machines have come through has found new adherents in the 21st century, including the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network, the Society of St. Andrew, Ag Against Hunger, the Gleaning Network of Texas and other organizations.

It's not just for the countryside, either. Urban gleaning, including foraging, can yield tasty results. The Portland Fruit Tree Project, for example, holds harvesting parties; half the gleanings go to the harvesters, while the other half is donated to food banks. Other organizations include the Lexington Urban Gleaning Network, Fallen Fruit (previously) and North Berkeley Harvest.

Interested in organizing a gleaning? Start here. If you're part of an organization that might be able to donate excess food, have a look at this. (Companies and organizations that donate food are covered under the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects them from criminal and civil liability

As my grandparents said, "Waste not."
posted by MonkeyToes (20 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Ooooh thanks for this. I was looking for past MeFi posts on gleaning yesterday. You've saved me making my own post, thank you!
posted by jessamyn at 9:27 AM on January 11, 2010

I had a print of "The Gleaners" on the wall near the kitchen table when my kids were young. It's a powerful image, especially when you understand the meaning of the word, and I like to think it was one of many things that had a good influence on my now-grown kids.
posted by mareli at 9:31 AM on January 11, 2010

It follows a basic humanitarian ethic that has been part of societies for centuries.

Well that can't possibly be because didn't we determine yesterday that corporations destroying their leftovers is close to godliness?
posted by DU at 9:34 AM on January 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

I can't find a reference for it now, but I'd read someplace that the Aztecs set aside the first few rows of corn alongside the roads as a place from which the poor/hungry could take.
posted by jquinby at 9:35 AM on January 11, 2010

Ooops, missed that link in the last sentence. Mods, please feel free to fix.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:39 AM on January 11, 2010

I watched a guy wheel a huge load of over-ripe fruits and veggies out of the supermarket the other day. I assumed it was urban gleaning.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:42 AM on January 11, 2010

My parents are pretty involved in a charity that works to have farm workers glean for themselves and for donation in CA. The amount of food the left over after commercial harvest is incredible. Unbelievable. Astounding. Especially considering that it's all grown using precious irrigation water.
posted by fshgrl at 10:01 AM on January 11, 2010

I was wondering where I had just heard something about gleaning!

There was a good link posted in the "H&M throwing away clothes" post.
posted by orme at 10:01 AM on January 11, 2010

There's an eccentric old store-front preacher on my block who gives away food and clothing every Saturday. When we have an over-abundance of anything from our garden or fall prey to a buy-one-get-one-free offer for milk or eggs or something that we can't use two of, he gets it, but he usually has boxes and boxes of fruits and vegetables from local markets, available to anyone who comes by. Dude's kinda nutty, but he's dedicated.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:02 AM on January 11, 2010

I think things like dumpster diving, freeganism, and (slightly) more organized groups like Food Not Bombs are another modern urban variation on gleaning.
posted by radiomayonnaise at 10:11 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Anyone interested in this subject should watch Agnès Varda's wonderful documentary The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse):
The film tracks a series of gleaners as they hunt for food, knicknacks, and personal connection. Varda travels French countryside and city to find and film not only field gleaners, but also urban gleaners and those connected to gleaners, including a wealthy restaurant owner whose ancestors were gleaners. The film spends time capturing the many aspects of gleaning and the many people who glean to survive. One such person is the teacher named Alain, an urban gleaner with a master's degree who teaches French to immigrants. Varda's other subjects include artists who incorporate recycled materials into their work, symbols she discovers during her filming (including a clock without hands and a heart-shaped potato), and the French law regarding gleaning. Varda also spends time with Louis Pons, who explains how junk is a "cluster of possibilities".
IMDb, Wikipedia, Ebert review, Amy Taubin review ("A woman in her early seventies working in a profession that is as youth-oriented and male-dominated as when her first feature, Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962), made her the only female director of the New Wave, Varda is in some ways as marginal as most of her subjects. "I have the feeling that I'm an animal," she comments over a close-up of her wrinkled hand, accidentally caught by her own camera. "Worse, an animal I do not know.")
posted by languagehat at 10:21 AM on January 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

Well that can't possibly be because didn't we determine yesterday that corporations destroying their leftovers is close to godliness?
From my reading of that thread, it seems that most MeFites were firmly on the side of charity.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:23 AM on January 11, 2010

Back when I was about 5ish my babysitter would take all us kids out to the harvested fields to pickup the leftover carrots, potatoes and beets. I remember eating a lot of potato soup when when I stayed there.
posted by Tenuki at 10:27 AM on January 11, 2010

There's an artful documentary essay about this topic: Les glaneurs et la glaneuse ("The Gleaners and I") It includes the painting.
posted by inkyroom at 10:36 AM on January 11, 2010

Oops - someone already mentioned it.
posted by inkyroom at 10:37 AM on January 11, 2010

Hey, did you guys know there is a documentary about this called "The Gleaners and I?"
posted by entropicamericana at 10:38 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Holy shit. My 89 year old grandma grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and in Dayton, OH during The Great Depression and this in honestly her favorite painting ever. It was a big deal for her when my aunt bought her a print. I don't think she has any idea what it represents gleaning-wise, but she definitely would relate because "gleaning" was a way to survive.

In Dayton she and her sisters would sneak onto the train that went by their house (with the knowledge of the engineer, who would slow down for them) and throw down coal from the coal cart so they could walk back and grab it. That's how they cooked their food and heated their house.
posted by sideshow at 11:30 AM on January 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

I live in a rural/agricultural county in NW Washington (Skagit county) and gleaning is a common practice here. It's obviously done with the landowner's blessing, and my understanding is that it's primarily the families of the people who were hired to harvest the crops the day before.

It's an emotionally complicated and politically charged act. Most harvest workers are undocumented migrant workers who travel around the state following the harvest dates. They lead dangerous, under-privileged lives, and get paid a pittance to do so. I imagine the gleaning is not just a matter of thrift, but of survival.

At the same time, I'm glad to see that the perfectly good produce isn't going to waste. And that in a world where "extra" food is frequently destroyed so that people don't eat it, the landowners here are still willing to extend the courtesy.
posted by ErikaB at 12:05 PM on January 11, 2010

Jamaica's main newspaper is called "The Gleaner", which I always loved.
posted by Aquaman at 2:32 PM on January 11, 2010

Linebaugh's 'The Magna Carta Manifesto' has a bit about the attempt to keep the right to gleaning in 17th England.

On similar lines there's also the modern day Diggers, planting food on the urban waste-lands.
posted by titus-g at 9:08 PM on January 11, 2010

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