Pay attention in the grocery store, and you'll probably see this scene, or something a lot like it.

A busy soccer mom stops at the dairy case. Grabs a container of yogurt, looks at it, puts it back. Picks up another one, then puts that one down too. She gets annoyed and shoves them all to one side. (Not knowing or caring how this will force some minimum wage grunt to come by in a few minutes and straighten them all up again.) Reaching deep down into the dairy case's chilly throat, she drags out another container, looks at it, and nods with grim satisfaction. This one goes in the shopping cart. After she leaves, you might look at the rejected yogurt, and see a "sell by date" that's only a few days away. Of course it's not just the soccer moms doing this. You might see anybody doing it, from college frat boys to grandmas.

Ever wonder what happens to all that yogurt, and bread, and other food that doesn't get bought before the "sell by date" gets close enough to make choosy shoppers nervous? You might think it gets thrown away. A lot of it does, but some gets rescued by charity groups who give it to poor people and soup kitchens. Some of these groups call themselves "The Gleaners." These nice folks are newcomers in the battle to keep food from getting wasted. They've just adopted an ancient name for it.

For thousands of years, gleaners have been the poor people themselves, without land or families to support them. They follow after a farmer in the field during the harvest, and pick up food left behind. This still happens today in some places. It's getting less common in places where farmers use machines that don't leave much behind.

Letting poor people glean usable food from your fields might seem like a bad idea to some farmers, but it has a long history, partly because it's protected by laws in the Old Testament.

Leviticus 19:

19:9 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest.

19:10 And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 24:

24:19 When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands.

24:20 When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.

24:21 When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.

24:22 And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt: therefore I command thee to do this thing.

As we all know, there's nothing like a direct order from the Lord to talk you into doing stuff, especially when all your neighbors are keeping an eye on you to make sure you're truly faithful. Maybe that's why gleaners have usually been allowed a certain quiet dignity, so long as they remembered their place and stayed properly humble. Whatever the reason for them, these tiny shreds of respect get taken away completely when gleaners move their trade from the farmlands to the city. The quiet dignity of gleaning the fields doesn't get transferred to people who glean from trash bins.

Your average business in the city these days may not be quite so worried about what the Lord commands. (Maybe it's just something about cities? Somebody who knows a lot more than me might be able to answer that one.) You can find some places with trash bins full of food that was perfectly edible before it was soaked with bleach. Other businesses keep the food under lock and key until it gets hauled away to the landfill. I guess that's why the most successful gleaners nowadays are the ones who get themselves organized and licensed, and politely ask for the food before it gets thrown into the trash.

Seems to me there must be some better way to keep all that food from going to waste, but I can't say exactly what it might be. So, it's a good thing some people have time to make all the effort, and jump through the hoops, and work with the system to get some of that food to people who would go hungry without it. Better to do what we can, instead of just complain about everything. Maybe it's time I looked around for somebody who's doing this close to me, and see if I can't help them out a bit. Might give me some interesting things to write about, too.

Glean"er (?), n.


One who gathers after reapers.


One who gathers slowly with labor.



© Webster 1913.

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