Gleaning, the act of picking food after the official harvest, is an activity ancient enough to bear mention in the Old Testament. In France, it’s been on the law books since the 1500s as a legally mandated right of the poor to enter private property and take the food left behind. Of course, to glean also means to obtain, to derive, and to extract. An upcoming Grange event draws the many definitions of gleaning together in one night of celebrating this act as a means of both nourishment and art.
In benefit for Farm to Pantry, we screen filmmaker Agnes Varda’s eccentric and lyrical 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I on Wednesday, Jan. 14. Varda, a diminutive seeker then in her 70s, traveled the French countryside with the era’s new miracle — a small, handheld digital camera — from October 1999 to May 2000. Along the way, she captured short smart stories of those who choose from literal tons of abandoned potatoes to those stripping apple orchards to the rogues who clear commercial oyster beds after winter storms to artists and scrappers and punks who take free junk from the streets and dumpsters, obsessing over the untapped magic of others’ castoffs. Collecting their stories, Varda sees herself as a gleaner as well, as the French title of the film (Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse), underscores.
Gleaning used to be a communal activity, done by women after the harvest’s end. Jean-Francois Millet’s famous 1867 painting of gleaners shows a trio of women silently bent over a harvested wheat field, bundling up all that’s left. Varda meets an elderly farm woman who remembers the fun of the hard work, the gossip and coffee afterwards. Nowadays, gleaning is generally a solo pursuit, driven by a hunger of some kind, be it physical or mental.
Farm to Pantry’s founder Melita Love stumbled across the activity in 2008 when she was searching for her lost sunglasses at the Farmers’ Market. A former teacher with an MBA who worked in child welfare and had recently relocated to Healdsburg, she went to the information booth to inquire. While there, she also asked about the day’s unsold food and learned it was likely to go to waste. On another day, at the grocery store, she looked into the barrel set out for food donations and saw that every donation was commercial and processed. Fresh food wasn’t going to those who needed it; Cap’n Crunch was.
Love started collecting the unsold food at market close from farmers. She put up a sign offering to take it to the Healdsburg Food Pantry, which is shuttered on market day. An elderly woman told her of a groaning fig tree she couldn’t properly harvest, no longer being able to climb a ladder. Love offered to help strip the tree. “And a woman literally standing right next to me said, ‘I would like to help with that!'” Love remembers with a laugh. “Four or five of us went out there and it just went on from there.”
Love estimates that, since 2008, her loose group of volunteers has gleaned more than 80 tons of fruit and vegetables that would otherwise have gone to waste. That’s some 640,000 servings of food. Initially donating solely to the Healdsburg Food Pantry, thus giving her organization its Farm to Pantry name, the group now has 10 outlets for its food, a school program that involves elementary and junior high students in harvest and donation, a part time paid staffer, and is moving forward with official 501c3 nonprofit status.
As food waste awareness grows, organized gleaning in Sonoma County has become more robust — and certainly more communal. In addition to Farm to Pantry, we now have Cropmobster, Petaluma Bounty, Slow Harvest, the Sonoma Valley Gleaners, and other organizations working to stem food waste.
On the day of the film screening, Farm to Pantry will host a tasting at the Healdsburg Food Pantry, offering a white bean and kale soup they made with Slow Harvest using space and equipment donated by Relish Culinary Adventures, which makes its kitchen available to local nonprofits monthly. Love has bilingual students lined up to deliver recipes in English and Spanish and to discuss the food — kale in particular — with the Pantry’s largely Latino clientele. “When it’s an ingredient not as familiar to the clients, we like to combine it with a tasting,” she explains.
Even locked in the depths of winter, there is food to harvest. Lemons go to the food banks; oranges, to schools and after school programs and senior centers. On a recent day, Farm to Pantry picked over 700 pounds of citrus that would have otherwise gone uneaten. “And tomorrow,” Love says with a note of delight in her voice, “it’s tangerines.”
The Gleaners and I screens on Wednesday, Jan. 14, at 6pm, in our upstairs Grange. Melita Love from Farm to Pantry will be in attendance to discuss her organization’s work. Donations in support of Farm to Pantry are requested.