Back in college when funds were scarce and all things anti-establishment worth doing, I used to sneak into the dumpsters behind a newly opened fancy grocery store to salvage unopened bags of bagels and slightly yellowed shrink wrapped broccoli and bottles of artisanal iced tea made with honest-to-goodness organic sugar that had expiration dates of yesterday. Whatever embarrassment that came with picking out of the trash was quickly overcome by pride in my thrift and resourcefulness. I thought myself ingenious, ignorant as I was of the long and illustrious tradition of gleaning.
Practiced by gleaners as they’re called, generally poor, rural inhabitants, gleaning is the art of collecting leftover crops from the field after it’s been harvested for commercial purposes. Requiring only labor, gleaning was an important if not vital source of food for families who worked as agriculture laborers or didn’t have enough land to grow the food necessary to support themselves. Gleaners also preformed an important service for the health of farms by cleaning the fields of crops, thereby preparing the land for the next planting.
While little noticed by the upper echelons of society, except in times of unrest, 19th Century artists often looked to gleaners as subjects who either represented the underclass on whose backs the empires of Europe were built or alternatively as representatives of the simple life’s purity.
Presented in the wake of a revolutionary century and in the midst of another, Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners caused an uproar at the 1857 Paris Salon. Many of the exhibition’s well healed visitors were reminded of the not so distant bloodshed of the French Revolution when peasants such as those depicted brandished their shovels and pitchforks in their march against the monarchy.
By 1895 however, peasant revolts had been quelled for the time being, pending 1914, and gleaners became less of a controversial subject.
While the closures and the concentration of land slowly squeezed out the practice of gleaning, it wasn’t until the automation of farming that gleaning as it pertained strictly to the art of taking food from fields really started to disappear. Now, almost every morsel of sellable food is harvested and to a large degree, this is a good thing. Efficiency in farming makes for cheaper food.
Rather than portray the backbreaking labor of gleaning, Jules-Adolphe Breton’s soft pallet and impressionistic brush strokes in The Last Gleanings create a romanticized picture of peasant life. The work’s three central figures, a girl, a middle aged woman, and an old women, depict the stages of life with each fixing her gaze in the direction of her near future. The work became and immediate success, eventually landing in the hands of American business mogul Henry Clay Frick who hung it above his mantel in his Upper Eastside Manhattan mansion.
But it doesn’t, as it turns out, make for less waste. According to the USDA, between 30% and 40% of the US’s food supply is wasted. Meanwhile 1 in 6 Americans face hunger on a daily basis. As such, there’s still a place for gleaning, though these days it looks a bit different.
While food banks and pantries have long since accepted dented cans and day old bread, more than a few charities and businesses are looking to up their gleaning game.
Imperfect Produce buys “ugly” looking vegetables from farmers at discount prices and passes the savings onto consumers. While supermarkets will pass over crooked carrots and lumpy potatoes, they’re no different than the more regularly formed row-mates. So while your meal might look a little funky, it’ll cost less and have a positive (or at least less negative) impact on the global food system.
Likewise, Fare Share collects perfectly good food that for one cosmetic reason or another is deemed unfit to sell and distributes it to the UK’s citizens who are at risk of food insecurity. At the moment 772,390 people access their services every week.
But I think there’s also something important in the definition of gleaning as “the art of collecting leftover crops.” In many ways art is the act of seeing value where there is one, of transmogrifying the worthless to the invaluable. In gleaning, that is harvesting food that has no value either from the field or the trash, a gleaner imbues that once worthless object with more worth than anything that you could buy at the store. And more, in our lives there are so few opportunities to create this kind of alchemy, this kind of practical magic that is one of the more enjoyable facets of the human experience.
If you want to see what I mean, watch Agnès Varda’s absolute masterpiece, The Gleaners and I.
If you still need more convincing that there is buried treasure in what may look like trash, please listen to Templeton.