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Gleaning is a time honored tradition of gathering food that is either left over from a harvest or left in the fields on purpose for people who don’t have enough food to eat.
(Gleaning is even mentioned in the Bible in the book of Ruth and is the basis for quite a love story. If you haven’t read it recently, I highly recommend it.)
Believe it or not, gleaning is alive and well today in various forms. It’s a great way to get free food and save lots of money on your grocery bill.
- Many small farmers have produce left over during and especially at the end of the growing season. They don’t want the food to go to waste so they offer it to their customers or anyone who will come and pick it.
- There are various organizations which coordinate large scale gleaning operations to donate unsold produce to food pantries and soup kitchens.
- And there are place all across the world where there is free food to be had if you know where it is growing. I’m not talking about foraging for wild food, but food planted specifically for people to eat.
At the end of this post you’ll find some tips for gleaning, and I included some websites you can check out if you’re interested in finding food for yourself or gleaning for a food pantry in your area.
I’m sure there are a lot more resources out there, but these are the ones I know about. If you know of others, please let me know in the comment section below.
“Gleaning” as a kid
I remember as a kid, some of my friends and I would go up and down the neighborhood looking for fruit trees with branches hanging over back yard fences. We knew where the best fruit trees were and when they had ripe fruit. We figured if they were hanging over the fence, they were there for the taking.
Once I came home with a bowl full of cherries and my mom asked me where they came from. She was not too happy that I had taken them from a neighbor’s tree. I can’t remember for sure what she made me do. We either called the neighbor or went to his house to apologize and ask permission to pick some of his fruit. He never seemed to pick any of it so I guess he was happy to let us have it.
Modern day gleaning
More recently, my wife and I got an email a few weeks ago from the CSA we used to be members of until this year. (We quit because they grew stuff we did not like in such large quantities.) The email explained that the garden had been overly productive this year and there was still a lot of food in the garden but the CSA was over and they opened up their fields for anyone in the community to come and take what ever they wanted and could use.
The plan was to plow everything under the next week. And if possible, they didn’t want it to go to waste.
So early the last Saturday in September, we took several tote bags and descended upon the farm. There were lots of other gleaners there besides us. And things were already picked over. Just as we got there, a lady was leaving with a small bag of red tomatoes and kindly informed us that the tomatoes were pretty much all gone.
Except of course for the green ones. There were tons of them and we quickly loaded up 20+ pounds of those emerald globes. Many of them had hints of pink and red. These ripened up nicely over the next couple of weeks.
But I had specific plans for the ones with no hope of turning red: green tomato chow chow. Here’s my recipe if you’re interested.
Everyone loves it except my wife and kids. Alas! But that’s another story.
We also got an armload of wonderful kale, some fabulous lettuce, a variety of peppers and some herbs – all organic. There were several garden rows of the most beautiful lettuces; we wished we could have taken more. There was so much food there, but we only took what we could process or eat ourselves.
Well, we did actually take some lettuce for some friends. And we called several people in the area we thought might be interested. Hey, free food is free food.
Connecting to the earth
It was a very interesting experience. Gathering all this food that would just get plowed under produced a very satisfying feeling. We both felt a kind of sacred connection with the earth and the age old tradition of gleaning. Very different from going to the grocery store and buying some lettuce.
It was very different from going into my own garden and harvesting lettuce or kale or whatever, which I had done all summer long. There was something special in participating in the gleaning of these fields.
If you are going to glean with an organization to bring in the harvest for a food pantry, see the organizations listed below. It’s not a complete list, but it’s a starting point.
In many parts of the country, it is not too late to go gleaning. Go talk to your local growers. If the season is past, think of who you could talk to next year.
If you will be gleaning for yourself, here are a few tips to follow:
- During the growing season develop relationships with local farmers and CSAs. You can meet them at farmers’ markets or visitation days on farms or by being a member of a CSA.
- Always ask permission if you can glean their fields after they have completed their harvest.
- Be courteous to other gleaners.
- Take plenty of bags or boxes to carry home your food, but don’t be greedy. Only take what you can use, preserve or share.
- Be respectful of their property and don’t leave it disorderly.
- Thank the farmer. If you preserve some of the food, it would be a nice gesture to take them some canned or baked goods as a “Thank You.”
Falling Fruit: Shows a world map of places where food can be found growing.
Food Forward rescues fresh local produce that would otherwise go to waste, connecting this abundance with people in need, and inspiring others to do the same.
Since 1983, the Society of St. Andrew has salvaged fresh, nutritious produce from American farms – produce that otherwise would be left to rot – and delivered it to agencies across the nation that serve the poor.
Village Harvest is a harvesting/gleaning organizations directory of several regions in the United States.
I’d love to hear about your gleaning experiences. Please leave a comment below.
Happy gleaning,James Early OG 365 Getting the most out of your garden (or someone else’s) all year long
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