The Gleaner's Pantry

OK, so how many of you know what a gleaner is?

I sort of knew -- you can glean an idea, and I'd seen the famous painting of "The Gleaners" while in Paris. I remember thinking it was a really tough way to make a living -- picking up leftover food, after the harvest.

But here, it was used it the literal, biblical sense: People wanted to know if they could glean apples from my tree when I was done with it, and I heard about gleaners going out to the raspberry fields after the farmers harvested crops.

It's an old, old concept; as the link explains, different books in the bible talk about gleaning, and it goes back to ancient Jewish tradition and way before that. It means to pick up the leftovers -- to gather up all remaining food and use it to feed your pantry.

I'm fascinated by this -- that there has always been a tradition of gleaning, of laws made about it, and that it still exists today.

And then, last week, we drove by a beat-up, hand-painted sign on a small, run-down building, only a few blocks from my house, that said, "The Gleaners Pantry."

So I had to stop in and see what they were doing.

Turns out, they're gleaning. They're taking all of the leftover produce and food that grocery stores don't want, and they're getting people together to dig through it all and see what's good enough to keep.

All you need to do is join up, pay about $15 a month, volunteer a few hours, and be willing to dig through boxes of food.

So on Monday, I showed up to see what it was all about.

And it was like a whole different world.

There were about fifteen women, all of them looking like they homeschool, go to church, have children and lots of responsibility. I'd be willing to bet there wasn't a pedicure, botox shot or a designer handbag used by any of them. And not for lack of money: Clearly, these women had different priorities. Frugal, strong, intelligent, clever and efficient, they lined me up, put to work, and told me I could "shop" for free the first day to see if I wanted to join.

So, with a pair of gloves on, I joined in. Case after case of half-rotten peaches, tomatoes with a few brown spots, lettuce that was wilting, apples that had soft spots, jalepenos that were starting to wrinkle. I said to one woman, "So how bad does the peach have to be to throw it out?"

She said, "If you can make it into a smoothie, save it. If you and your kids wouldn't eat it, it goes into the box for the pigs."

It was pretty tedious work, but not entirely unpleasant, and there were several boxes of dry goods -- sugar, mac and cheese boxes, jello and canned goods. After about twenty minutes, we were done, and we lined up to "shop" from the now clean, dry, ready-to-eat food.

Cases of tomatoes. Nothing wrong with them. The ones with mold had been thrown away. The ones left were ripe, but not bad. The jalepenos were soft, but not rotten. The peaches needed to be eaten that day, or the next, but they weren't awful.

It looked like, well, food. Like a peach you'd brought home a day or two ago and sat on your counter, and you'd think as you walked by, "I'd better eat that soon."

Not, "Eeew, I need to throw that out."

And so I went, and I picked out potatoes, and peaches and pears and plums and tomatoes (I picked out the organic ones,) and cucumbers and peppers.

I went by the peaches, and they were a little yucky, but there was a woman who was going to take the whole box home.

I said, "Those are pretty over-ripe. They're really too ripe, even for smoothies. What are you going to do with them?"

She said she was going to take them, mush them up, put them in the freezer and when the apples on her tree ripened, she'd mix the applesauce with the peaches and make fruit leather.

That's when I knew I was in presence of ninja-level frugality and food cleverness. 

And then, at the end, they said, "OK, who wants more? There's a whole case of tomatoes and peppers left."

One lady said, "I only need half a case for canning. Anyone want to split the box?"

Nope. It was going to go to the pigs.

So I took it home.



And this:


All of it.

With peppers, and mushrooms and onions and potatoes, and more food than I had any idea what I was going to with.

Yes, that's a fat organic heirloom tomato.

And fat, ripe apples with not even a spot on them. And a turnip, I think, or a parsnip. I don't even know. But I do know that it's going into soup.

And I got into the car with my free loot, and I handed Scout a plastic clamshell full of canteloupe, and she didn't say to me, "Mom, I can't eat this, because it's garbage that our society says is no good anymore."

Instead, she said, "Yuuuum! Give me some of that delicious fruit!", and she ate every last piece.

And so I went home, and I lined up my canning jars, and I got out some recipes, because I had no idea what to do with half of this stuff, and I did this with it:


And now I have to decide if this is something I can keep doing.

Because I'm not saving the world by eating food that's been thrown away. I'm not really making a statement by eating food that would otherwise go to pigs. Or if I am, I can't figure out what the statement is.

I just know that our society throws out an awful lot of food for no good reason.

Do you guys know Mavis? Mavis is my hero. She's who I want to be. She feeds her family on $100 a month, mostly from her garden, and from gleaning.

I can certainly afford to feed my family. I can go out and buy lettuce. I can plant a garden. But do you know how much more money we'd have if I spent $100 a month on feeding my family?

And I have a hard time deciding whether it's better to use a case of tomatoes that would have gone to the pigs to make sauce with over tomatoes that I've grown from my garden, or that I've bought from a local farmer who makes his living on organic heirloom tomatoes.

I'm not sure what all of it means.

But I do know that I'm with Mavis. I'm not going to go back to eating the American way anymore -- buying overpriced, over-sprayed, under-nourishing food from a grocery store lit by flourescent lights that sells food that kills people.

This might just be the beginning. Can I keep it up? I don't know. I sure hope so.

Because it sure would be a shame to let the pigs in our country eat better than most people do.

Meagan McGovern