“All those delicious Brussels sprouts, rotting!” I griped to my brother about a neighbor’s garden.
He shrugged and said, “Get used to it.”
In rural western Washington, not everything gets harvested. Something is always left over. There may be no time to cut something or no place to store it. Too much or too little rain. Too many or too few warm dry days. Nobody to pick. Or nobody to buy, if a crop tastes good but looks horrible, or because the same crop ripened elsewhere first—like potatoes in Idaho, this year—and the supermarket buyers have already filled their contracts.
So I’m glad the word gleaning has busted out of the Bible color plate of Ruth in Boaz’s field and is elbowing its way into national consciousness. When I promised my mother in March that the fruit trees on our farm wouldn’t just rot on the ground, I didn’t know I’d discover a national movement to connect what’s left in fields with food pantries and soup kitchens. After I tracked down Harvest for Hope of Skagit, which organizes and dispatches gleaners in our valley, I read Nancy Michaelis’s blog about Ample Harvest, matching gardeners and food banks on the national level.
This fall I’ve been living by Ample Harvest’s slogan: “No food left behind!” On a bike errand, I stopped to pick a bag of carrots declared too homely to sell by their growers. Every couple of days I help myself to zinnias and sunflowers whose flower farmer stopped cutting and told me, “Enjoy!” Gleaning for Harvest for Hope, I made new friends and froze a fall of beans for me. Harvest for Hope accepted the 12 pounds of beans I gleaned from my landlady’s garden and will accept the last of the apples from our family tree. (Thank goodness, because apples are the zucchini of Washington state: so plentiful you can’t give them away.)
At one end of this gleaning stand the field, the farmer, and the willing volunteer. At the other end must be cooks and canners—people who can prepare and preserve food—as well as food pantries with freezers, refrigerators, and efficient distribution systems. Without this important element, the beans I glean in Mt. Vernon will rot somewhere else. Fortunately a couple of activists helped persuade US food pantries to retool themselves to accept and distribute fresh produce. Goodbye, commodity cheese. Hello, beets and carrots.
“Canning is the new knitting,” someone said recently. And just in time, because almost everybody has forgotten how. Food preservation classes are popping up everywhere as people like me decide to recover the lost skills of freezing, canning and dehydrating. Or how to use every single scrap of a vegetable, as the New York Times feature “That’s not trash, that’s dinner!” demonstrates.
Now if only I can convince my neighbor to let me glean her Brussels sprouts…
Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity