Picture it. On a warm summer morning, you’re at a farm just an hour from DC, and you’ve just picked a basket full of fresh zucchini, cherries or string beans. Now imagine that you pick four more baskets just like it…and give them all away. That’s gleaning!
With biblical roots, gleaning is one of the oldest commandments intended to help the poor. Leviticus 23:22 directs farmers to leave at least one-sixtieth of the edges of their fields unpicked, to not pick up fruit that has fallen to the ground and to not pick up bits of the harvest falls during transport. These leftovers are left for others—the poor, the stranger, widows and orphans, the Torah says—to pick up. The best-known gleaners may be the biblical Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, both widows. The two poor women go to glean in the fields belonging to Boaz, who winds up marrying Ruth, and they become the ancestors of King David.
Today’s gleaning takes a bit of a modern twist, yet the outcomes remain the same. I have been volunteering with DC Central Kitchen’s gleaning program since 2016. It is both a satisfying and humbling experience that makes me consider food insecurity, farm workers’ rights and food waste.
Soup kitchens and food pantries struggle to maintain adequate inventory of fresh produce, which is difficult to obtain due to high costs. In our area, they receive large donations of fresh fruits and vegetables infrequently, as shelf-stable grocery items are easier to store and last longer. Organizations like Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) and Nourish Now in Montgomery County, Maryland run food collection drives throughout the year. Community kitchens also rely on donations to operate, and some, like DC Central Kitchen (DCCK), prepare thousands of meals every day to serve the city’s homeless population. AFAC and DCCK have run volunteer gleaning programs for the past few years, enabling them to offer their clients fresh, local produce.
Many farms are unable to pick all of the produce that is grown each year due to a lack of labor, unfavorable weather conditions or insufficient time. When a farm’s only options are to turn crops under and restart that field again the next season or pull up and compost plants and produce, everyone loses. Un-harvested produce represents a financial loss to farmers and can attract pests and insects. Gleaners pick crops that have over-produced, are the wrong size for commercial harvest (usually too large), are at the end of a growing season and can’t be picked efficiently because they are scattered throughout the fields or are too “ugly” or oddly shaped to be sold. Most farmers would prefer that excess fruits and vegetables be consumed rather than wasted.
There is a bit of mystery when it comes to what gleaners are likely to encounter. Unexpectedly ideal conditions may lead to an overly abundant field of corn, or a commercial buyer might reduce the size of their order. Tomatoes may ripen through late September, but if the farm’s schedule can only accommodate picking until Labor Day, the rest is lost. Once gleaned and returned to DCCK, skilled chefs, most of whom have trained there, prepare the giant squash, super sweet strawberries or crunchy carrots picked that morning within a day or two to serve the community in need.
DCCK’s volunteers travel up to two hours from DC to glean at a farm, anywhere from the Shenandoah all the way to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We volunteer at both commercial farms and the “U-Pick”-style farms you might visit with your family.
There are many ways to engage and give back. Gleaning makes me feel connected to the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world). There is something particularly fitting about trying to heal the world by taking crops that would otherwise go to waste and harvesting them to feed those who are hungry.
Gleaning with DCCK runs every Thursday from June through the end of October. Volunteers must provide their own transportation. You can sign up online.