GLEANING // the local food report

Gleaning / verb /

extract (information) from various sources.
    "the information is gleaned from press clippings"
collect gradually and bit by bit.
    "objects gleaned from local markets"
historical: gather (leftover grain or other produce) after a harvest.
    "the conditions of farm workers in the 1890s made gleaning essential"

Gleaning is as old as the Torah. Torah law mandates that every person who owns a field must leave something from the harvest for collection by the poor. Mostly, we've given up the tradition. But on Martha's Vineyard, gleaning is alive and well. 

It's another program of Island Grown InitiativeIsland Grown Gleaning—and the day I went to the island to check it out, it was a collaboration between IGG and Island Grown Schools. The entire 8th grade at the Tisbury School was in the fields, divided predictably along gender lines: girls stepping gingerly to keep the mud off their boots, boys pelting each other with mushy or green potatoes. It was clear the kids didn't have much experience harvesting, but it was also clear they had plenty of enthusiasm, and plenty of energy. In less than half an hour they collected 961 pounds of potatoes that would have otherwise gone to waste. They loaded them onto a truck, and the next day they were delivered around the island for Thanksgiving.

This is the kind of thing IGI does a lot of—bring community together around agriculture—and IGG is no exception. The schools are involved, the senior centers, the low-income housing residents. Each year roughly 23,000 pounds of food are rescued from local fields, picked and put up or onto the tables of those in need. Sometimes, those in need are simply families. But other times they're institutions: for instance, the local schools.

Of course, this all begs the question: Why is there so much extra food sitting around unharvested in the first place? Mostly, it's a labor issue. At a certain point it isn't worth it to pay someone to harvest a crop. If half the potatoes are green, say, or too small, or have rotten spots. Or if the green beans in one row are no longer as young and tender as the ones you could pick today for sale. There's plenty of food that's still perfectly good to eat, but to harvest and prepare and sell it is prohibitively expensive.

That's where the few hundred volunteers on IGG's harvest alert email list come in. Usually only somewhere between five and ten show up any given day, but it's almost always enough to get the job done. The day of the potato glean, seven volunteers harvested an additional 1100 pounds of potatoes after the kids had left. That's a lot of food for local families.

Jamie O'Gorman, the program director, says there's another gleaning program based in Waltham (Boston Area Gleaners), but that she doesn't know of any others in the state. But Jamie also says she'd love to see that change. Even if it is collected gradually, and bit by bit, wouldn't it be great to see your community create 23,000 pounds of change?

P.S. For two great locally written pieces on gleaning, check out Ali Berlow's piece in the Huffington Post (Gleaning: A Biblical Act of Generosity)—Berlow is the founder of both IGI and Edible Vineyard—and Marstons Mills blogger Tamar Haspel's post on gleaning cranberries from a local farm.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.