Monday, March 24, 2014

What I've Gleaned From Gleaning

(A belated but still relevant meditation on our gleaning trip last fall at Pippin Orchards).
By Michelle Zheng, Special Events Coordinator 

“I went on a gleaning trip this weekend!”

“What? What did you clean?”

“No, gleaning, with a G.”

Most haven't gleaned more than information from a book, but gleaning has another definition that's important to know about. It's also the act of gathering surplus crops that would otherwise go to waste from fields when farms don't have the resources or time to harvest everything they've grown. A practice with biblical origins, farmers would leave excess produce in their fields as a form of charity, so that strangers and the poor could gather the food. Nowadays, it's practiced by humanitarian groups, but the principle is still the same: redistribute excess food to those in need. And what FRN does on college campuses can be considered gleaning in a more modern context: the dining halls are now the fields, and leftover food the crops.

But this doesn't mean that we can't practicing gleaning as it's traditionally defined as well.

Here at Brown, we decided to try gleaning for ourselves. After contacting a few farms, we got a response from Pippin Orchard, a local farm located just half an hour away from campus that graciously welcomed us to come and pick as we liked at the end of their season.

So on a sunny Saturday in November, we drove over as a group of nine to see what we could recover. With us were both FRNds from campus and from the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP). After we were greeted by Farmer Joe, who came out to greet us with oven mitts still on both hands (the smell of Thanksgiving pie wafting from behind him hinted at why), we headed out to the orchard to pick apples – buckets, crates and bags in hand.

The trees were so laden with apples in the area we were picking from that dozens of apples would literally fall off a tree if you gave it a nice shake. It was clear that we could've recovered several times as many apples were it not for transportation difficulties – we ran out of containers, and only had a truck and a car to load our harvest on. After hardly more than an hour, we had already filled every single one of our containers to the brim with apples as fresh as they come. And if that wasn't enough, the icing on our already robust gleaning cake, so to speak, was already-harvested pumpkins that Pippin had just sitting around, unused after Halloween. We then toasted our success with some apple cider and snacks, chatting about everything from how classes were going for us students to the experiences of our friends from RIHAP.

After weighing everything back on campus, we arrived at our grand total: 703 pounds of tasty, tasty produce. 703 pounds from just one morning of gleaning, and potentially so much more had we been more prepared with transportation. Definitely not the worst way to have spent a Saturday morning.

Gleaning has been on our minds since then. We're hoping to organize even more gleaning trips next fall, and take advantage of the huge potential sitting out there in the farms around us. Not only is the potential for recovery huge, but the potential to make local connections as well: by gleaning, we can support local agriculture both by helping farmers reduce their waste and allowing them to make tax deductions for the gleaned produce. It's a vote for sustainable local food systems.

Legality is an issue when it comes to organizing gleaning events, but our good old friend the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act takes care of liability associated with gleaned food, save instances of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. And volunteers can sign liability waivers that prevent growers from legal responsibility in the case that volunteers injure themselves while participating.

Now that I've had this experience, I'd love to see other chapters organize gleaning trips as well. It's as easy as contacting farmers, figuring out a few logistics, and then going out to the fields. And if gleaning from farms isn't geographically feasible, there's also urban gleaning, where gleaners collect produce from backyards and public spaces. Both are great ways to translate a hunger for action into the freshest kind of food possible for those who need it. So onwards, my FRNds – get out there and get gleaning!