Gleaning: Is This Ancient Tradition Something We Should Return To?

Unharvested corn that could be gleaned.

Gleaning, by definition, means the collection of unharvested crops from a field. (Image: Stevanovicigor via Dreamstime)

In this age of abundance, there is still a huge percentage of people who do not get three proper meals throughout the day. Wastage of cooked and raw food has become a source of worry for many. To counter this misuse, gleaning is making a comeback.

The history of gleaning

Gleaning, by definition, means the collection of unharvested crops from a field. In ancient times, the farmers often did not harvest every bit of crop. This could be because those were damaged or the farmer had a surplus harvest. The residual rejected crops were then “gleaned” by women who could not afford to buy fresh produce.

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The tradition of gleaning goes back some 4,000 years. From being a species that predominantly lived on hunting and gathering, our ancestors understood the need to collect every bit of produce available and not let anything go to waste.

This practice was seen in the Bible and later adopted — often enforced by the king or local landlord — to help the poor find food. The Book of Deuteronomy highlighted the act of gleaning. The book says that farmers should keep a part of their farms unharvested to support the gleaners. The Book of Ruth highlights the gleaning process followed by the widow Ruth and her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi.

Three women gleaning from a field.
Jean-François Millet’s ‘The Gleaners’. (Image: via Public Domain)

Over a century ago, the famous painter Jean-François Millet drew three women in the act of gleaning from a field. Hunching and gathering food so that it is not wasted is a noble act.

Throughout history, people valued every grain they could gather. This simple act speaks of many things — the primary being the need to count our blessings and be humble.

The need for gleaning today

The USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that roughly 30 percent of food goes to waste across the food supply chain, from farm to consumer. Simultaneously, more than 17 million households in the United States were food insecure at some point in 2014, meaning they did not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of nutritious food.

These numbers may have grown for certain populations during the pandemic as more Americans experienced a job loss or reduced income as a result of COVID-19’s economic impacts.

Food waste is an issue that touches every stage of the supply chain, from production and distribution to when food ultimately reaches consumers. In many cases, food is discarded because it is already spoiled. However, food is also wasted simply because it does not meet the cosmetic standards customers have come to expect.

Compounding the problem is that a large portion of the food wasted is precisely the food desperately needed by those suffering from food insecurity. Perishable foods such as fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy are rich in micronutrients and critical for a healthy diet, yet they are going to waste all across the U.S.

Through gleaning programs, volunteers can collect what fresh food is left in the fields after harvest and donate the goods to food banks or pantries that serve the needy.
Through gleaning programs, volunteers can collect what fresh food is left in the fields after harvest and donate the goods to food banks or pantries that serve the needy. (Image: via nycfoodpolicy.org)

Gleening and food insecurity-related issues

About 6-7 percent of planted acreage in the U.S. is not harvested because of cosmetic blemishes, mechanical harvesting errors, or a lack of a market for the crop. It is here that gleening can play an important role.

The benefits of gleaning are twofold. This improves the nutritional status of food insecure individuals by increasing the offering of fruits and vegetables available while simultaneously reducing food waste.

Through gleaning programs, volunteers can collect what fresh food is left in the fields after harvest and donate the goods to food banks or pantries that serve the needy.

Oftentimes, food banks are oversaturated with packaged, shelf-stable foods. They are successful at getting food donations, however, these donations are not usually the type of fresh foods that make up a healthy diet.

Given that the target populations served by food banks are also those experiencing food insecurity-related issues, gleaning provides a wonderful opportunity to use the food bank infrastructure as a way to distribute nutrient-rich fresh food.

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