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Eat, Drink + Think

Reports From the Field: Gleaning Past and Present

“When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan.” – Deuteronomy 24:19

How wonderful that my tradition would like me to share with those less fortunate in my community. Where do I start? The harvest holiday of Sukkot is coming up, but I’m not exactly planning to reap a harvest anytime soon, let alone overlook any particular sheaf. Now what to do?

In a Hazon program on Jews and food in 2004, I had this discussion with a woman who was a part of a Community Supported Agriculture project (CSA): “In a CSA,” she explained, “it’s inevitable that someone doesn’t come pick up their produce on a given week.” Indeed, CSAs generally partner with an emergency food provider to scoop up the left-behind produce. When Hazon founded the first Jewish CSA that summer, we were thrilled to bring fresh vegetables to a Jewish community, and also create a situation where members could fulfill the mitzvah of gleaning.

Gleaning has been legal in France since the time of Charlemagne, and it’s understood that after a farmer has made their harvest, what’s left in the field is free for the taking. A fascinating movie on this topic, “The Gleaners and I shows fields with mountains of “mis-shapen” potatoes, unfit for sale. There’s nothing wrong with them, so individuals come with tote bags and fill up. Others harvest from fig orchards and vineyards.

The concept of letting strangers onto your field is much more foreign in the US. Some farmers who love the idea are a bit wary of how it will play out in their fields. Visitors to a farm can step in beds, compacting the soil, or accidentally harvest crops that were not meant to be gleaned. Still, with enough signage and direction, a group of people can harvest a lot of left-behind food. If it would have otherwise gone to waste in a farmer’s field, it’s an amazing win-win situation: city folks get a day in the country, and food pantries get a welcome infusion of fresh produce.

A trip organized last month by the Jewish social justice organization Pursue did just that: folks from New York City traveled up to the Jewish farm Adamah, where they spent the day learning about Jewish agriculture and harvesting extra produce.

Karin Fleisch, wrote: “With my car bursting… with colorful produce, we drove home to Brooklyn, where the Bowery Mission van awaited our arrival. Five friendly volunteers… carefully transferred the veggies from my car to their van. The next day, Chef Trevor Mathura sautéed the squash and kale with lemon and butter for the soup kitchen, while the peppers and carrots went to feed the homeless. All in all, about 600 men and women got to enjoy the fresh, local Adamah veggies.”

As Sukkot rolls around, we’re urged to extend hospitality to guests in our sukkah. What if we also urge the farms and food producers that supply our food to remember the less fortunate, and reward them for doing so?

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