Gleaning: A Biblical Act of Generosity

Picking corn, I mulled it all over. How sorely disconnected we are from our food from where it comes from, how it's grown, who grows it, even how to cook it to who gets access to it.
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I had no epiphany. No transcendental enlightenment. At least not while I was walking down the long and verdant corridors of cornrows swaying and swishing like some cosmic leafed-out beaded curtains. I was there to work, to glean ripe sweet corn, one cob at a time... twist and tug, twist and tug, twist and tug... until my little corner of the field was harvested.

I was one of 20+volunteer gleaners who in two hours harvested over 1,700 pounds of fresh corn that would've otherwise been plowed under. We represented a wide swathe of community who'd come out to do some good work on an achingly beautiful late-summer morning. And Jamie O'Gorman, our leader and the coordinator of Island Grown Gleaning (IGG) ( made short order of getting the corn into the hands of school cafeteria directors to help support healthier lunches for students. From that one farm ( the bounty was quickly distributed as donations first to the schools and then to elder centers, recovery and employment programs and even the county jail. IGG manages gleans that have donated over 12,000 pounds of fresh veggies like greens, carrots, beets, beans, corn and squashes, in this growing season alone.

These are great things to behold.

Most of the volunteers had heard about the glean from the local papers. However one man learned about it through his church. "This is really biblical, isn't it?" I commented. "Gleaning? It's in the Bible?" he replied. I winced. It was great he was there but that threw me. I thought gleaning was woven into us, into the very fabric and foundations of agrarian societies. To save food that would otherwise be plowed under. The redistribution of wealth, taking care of those who for whatever reasons, need help... it's all there in the Bible, the Torah. Right? So why, when and how did we miss it?

Picking corn, I mulled it all over. How sorely disconnected we are from our food from where it comes from, how it's grown, who grows it, even how to cook it to who gets access to it. Sadly given this context, it wasn't surprising then, that the divides between history, culture, religion -- to farms, gleaning and feeding community, would be any different.

In Deuteronomy 24:19-22 from the Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, three times G-d commands farmers to leave food in their fields for "... the stranger, the fatherless and the widow." Rabbi Caryn Broitman of the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center interprets "the stranger" as today's immigrants. "The fatherless" as children "and the widow" as the elderly and the unemployed because historically, a widow was one who had no ability or access due to circumstances, to make a living on their own. Gleaning quite literally connects the margins of the fields to the people who are marginalized in our food systems, one harvest at a time.

Today, good whole food is being plowed under while there's a battle raging out there about highly processed, sugared and fatty foods generally served to students in school systems. The frightening epidemic of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes is so disturbing and seemingly ironic, against the backdrop of the USDA's recently released stats on the number of children in our country who were "food insecure" in 2010: 16.2 million. Food (re)distribution, access and costs are complex, multi-dimensional issues. But it's the kind of food and the kind of education we provide for our children that raises awareness, creates change and solutions to our problems.

There are many legitimate reasons (beyond Biblical commandments) why a farm will have food left in its peripheries, vulnerable to being tilled under and they are not necessarily reflections of bad or wasteful farming practices. Frequently it's situational, such as a lack or loss of labor or severe and dramatic changing weather patterns. On larger farms, mechanized harvesting techniques can skip over produce. Blemishes on tomatoes for example, can deem them as seconds, and hence not economically valuable enough for a farmer to harvest whilst they will be perfectly good, healthy and safe to eat or to process or put up for later. The potential to help feed the margins is all in the farms. It's a matter of connecting the dots to get it to them.

Taking a break that day, we shucked a few cobs for ourselves to taste. Raw, from stalk to mouth, warm sweet corn milk burst, kernel by kernel. I was humbly reminded that I'm able to stand in this part of the field today by the grace of G-d. For tomorrow, it could not be so for my family and me. I mean, aren't we all "the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow?" It was a blessing to work, to take action and enjoy the fruits of my labor so sensually and spiritually. One gleaner, a boy all of seven, maybe eight years old, exclaimed with kernels stuck between his toothy grin, "This corn tastes better than candy!" And I thought, "Lord, you are one lucky kid..."

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