Market Offers a Gleaning Model for the Modern Age

Gleaning—the act of collecting unharvested food that farmers leave in the fields to feed the hungry—dates back to at least biblical times. The ancient practice was a safety net to ensure that people wouldn’t go hungry in fragmented societies without centralized services for those in need. It has religious roots—the Torah commands farmers to leave some crops unharvested and Ruth gleaned to stay alive in the Hebrew Bible story. Jesus gleaned.

In the modern world, big farms don’t encourage people meandering around. But anti-hunger organizations still practice loose forms of gleaning and many farmers still love participating in this time-honored practice. FreshFarm Markets, an American farmers’ market organizer in Washington, D.C., ramps up its gleaning campaign during American Thanksgiving.

Throughout the year, FreshFarm organizes partnerships between farmers who sell at their markets (including one at the White House) and groups who feed people in need. Local farmers such as Garner’s Produce often bring a portion of fresh produce specifically for those groups—the modern equivalent of leaving crops unharvested in the field—and donate the day’s fresh, unsold food to their “gleaning partners” as well.

During the Thanksgiving season, market shoppers get in the action. FreshFarm collects money to pay farmers for food given to gleaning partners, so the farmers have more income going into the difficult-to-farm winter months on the American northeast coast. “Local farmers’ market profit margins are slim at best because so many things can go wrong”, says Juliet Glass, who runs the program. “Bad farming weather or market conditions or someone in the booth next to you has a better price. Our farmers are vulnerable and we like to pay them before going into winter.”

FreshFarm imagines that one day the program might have enough financial reserves to contract with farmers to grow specifically for their gleaning partners, in addition to the donated food. For example, committing to growing an acre of potatoes at a discounted price because they know that FreshFarm will purchase it for their gleaning partner. The food is essentially sold before the farmers plant it.

For now, shoppers can donate fresh food purchased at the market, which they place on a table that becomes a colorful food cornucopia to raise awareness of the program. The “Fresh Food Drive” is a nice compliment to the canned food drives that most food banks run at this time of year.

Farmers and hunger organizations are a natural fit. The world produces enough food for everyone; but our distribution system is uneven. Some form of gleaning can help solve that. Often food banks and institutions that offer free meals have lots of canned goods but don’t have fresh produce to make healthful meals. And the farmers’ leftover market foods would “otherwise be in a compost pile,” according to Glass. (In this way, gleaning also fights food waste, one of the big hunger and environmental issues of our time.)

When gleaning partners such as Miriam’s Kitchen (which fights homelessness) and D.C. Central Kitchen (which trains the unemployed for culinary careers) arrive to pick up the food, “there is a personal connection and a deepened relationship between the farmer and the gleaning partner that can only happen in person,” according to Glass.

The overflowing market donation table represents everyone’s right to have a good meal, which is especially poignant at Thanksgiving. “Seeing the donations come in is a thrill,” says Glass. “I hear about people who can’t afford a Thanksgiving meal and it makes me so sad. It’s the best meal of the year.”

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