French film-maker Agnès Varda’s documentary, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, winner of the Mélès Prize for Best French Film of 2000, offers controversial interpretation of Millet’s iconic painting The Gleaners (1857). Distributed in the United States as The Gleaners and I, the movie shows how poverty need not deprive individuals in any age of dignity and humor. They may be compelled, however, to overcome significant social and economic obstacles to eke out an existence. The film has contributed to a broader, contemporary definition of gleaning to include the gathering of unwanted foods of all kinds—bread, fruit, vegetables, and fish, as well as other castaway resources. Varda’s sobering images of oppressed, vulnerable and often young souls, illustrate the disturbing trend of income inequality in modern societies where “gleaning” remains a salient reality for many, and its potentially harsh consequences. Her work also suggests possible solutions in the food service sector through the stewardship of surplus distribution via urban pantries and community food banks.
This more broadly defined concept of gleaning was described in The Other America (1962), Michael Harrington’s influential study of hunger and homelessness that shaped Lyndon Johnson’s 1960s War on Poverty. In the wake of growing public awareness, social service and religious groups have formed new partnerships in recent decades to develop food security programs to distribute perishable produce and processed foods. At least one-third of food produced annually today in America—as much as 40 million tons valued at approximately $75 billion, is wasted due to spoilage and inefficient storage and distribution. Applying the idea of gleaning to such lost resources, a group of Phoenix activists organized the country’s first urban food bank, Second Harvest, in 1975 (known as Feeding America since 2008). Similar humanitarian efforts followed in Portland (Interagency Food Bank, 1975), Chicago (Food Depository, 1978), Seattle (Food Lifeline, 1979), New York City (City Harvest, 1982), and spread to many other large cities. Some of these endeavors are affiliated with denominational benevolent ministries including the Society of St. Andrew Gleaning Network (United Methodist Church), Evangelical Lutheran of America Church World Hunger, and Catholic Relief Services Hunger Campaign.
Brad Bailie of Lenwood Farms near Connell, Washington, produces organic grain and vegetables, and regularly works with local churches and crews of Feeding America gleaners to supply 2nd Harvest and other regional food banks. He explains his and other farmer-contributors’ motivations in both practical and moral terms: “Sometimes growers have surpluses because commercial buyers have certain commodity specifications by size or weight. This can leave a considerable amount of quality produce in the field, and we don’t like seeing such waste. We also believe that the blessing of a bountiful harvest brings responsibility to share with others.” The opportunities and responsibilities that come with abundant harvests are also evident in revivals of the ancient Passover Festival among religious fellowships throughout the world. Israel’s celebrated and prolific composer, Matityahu Shalem (1904-1975), wrote numerous folks songs for contemporary Jewish worship including Passover celebrations when the first sheaves of barley are cut for presentation at the temple. His popular Shibbolet Basadeh (Ear of Grain in the Field) is sung and danced to traditional choreography shaped by Shalem’s experiences on a kibbutz in western Galilee where he tended flocks and fields after relocating to Palestine before World War II.
For religious thinkers like Shalem, meaning still retains a supernatural sanction derived from humanity’s simultaneous temporal and spiritual nature. Contemplation of the harvest labor and its bounty can be perceived in the particularities of agrarian experience whether along a Galilean shore or Dakota slope.