Mention the word glean and most people will think of gathering information from various sources, because that is how the word is mostly used today. But glean has an historical definition, meaning to gather grain or other crops left in the field after a harvest. In some ancient cultures gleaning was encouraged as a method to assist those in need, an early form of helping the food insecure. The Bible and the Torah instructed farmers to leave sections of fields unharvested or to not pick up crops dropped during harvest. These crops were to be left for the poor or strangers.
Today, many emergency food organizations have gleaning programs. Some programs, like FOOD (Food On Our Doorstep) Share in Oxnard, CA coordinate an extensive network of volunteers and growers. This organization harvests an average of 50,000-60,000 lbs. of produces each month, mostly from farms, but also from backyard gardens and fruit trees. Other programs may just have a handful of volunteers who establish a relationship with a few farmers or gardeners. Currently Chester County Food Bank does not seem to have a gleaning program, but they did at one time. When I first considered volunteering at food banks, gleaning was one of the areas in which I had considered volunteering my time. It appeals to me in two ways. First, gleaning helps to eliminate waste. America is an incredibly wasteful society, embarrassingly so in my opinion, and keeping any fresh produce from becoming part of the waste stream, particularly in landfills is a step in the right direction. Secondly, gleaning gets fresh produce into the hands of people who would otherwise not have access to it.
I often wondered how successful a gleaning program would be in our corner of Chester County. While we live in a rural setting, most of the farmers growing on any large scale are Amish. I was unsure whether they would assist the non-Amish community and give away the fruits of their labor. I wasn’t even sure if they would have excess produce to donate. I know many Amish farmers have produce stands and travel to local farmers’ markets, but maybe they would keep any excess produce to share within their community. Or maybe there would be little to no waste because they canned or otherwise preserved their harvest and gave any marginal produce to their livestock to eat. They are such a simple, plain folk, maybe they very conscientiously only grew what they could use, frowning on excess. I just did not know.
This summer I got my answer. Every Tuesday morning a van belonging to one of the local food panties would go to Amish farms to collect what they could not use or sell. During the latter part of summer, when the vegetable harvest is in full swing, the van would return loaded with corn, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers and more! Learning this brought me happiness on many levels. I was glad to see folks in need of food getting access to so much fresh produce. I was pleased to see that food was not going to waste. And I was happy to know that this connection existed between our communities. I am quite fond of the Amish farmer who’s produce stand I frequent, and while I do not completely agree with all of their practices, I do believe we could learn much from them.