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Gleaning can help feed our hungry neighbors 

Ruth and Boaz (Image from Dore’s English Bible)

According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, 37,227,000 Americans, of which 11,174,000 are children, are currently grappling with hunger. In other words, more than 11% of Americans are, at this moment, food insecure (lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food). Among them are 13.1% of the people living in St. Lawrence County, 12.9% of those living in Franklin County, 11.9% of those in Clinton County, 10.3% of those in Essex County and 10.1% of those in Hamilton County. 

A recent Pew Research Center survey of 13,200 people found that 17% of people surveyed had received at least some food from a food bank or similar organization since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Nationwide, that figure would be equivalent to 56 million Americans. 

Now, the United States is, arguably, the greatest food producing nation in the world. We’re certainly one of the greatest. So if I may say so, that’s an astonishing number of individuals and families who, due to a lack of financial or other resources, are either unable or finding it difficult to put food on the table. 

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Food banks 

Gleaners harvest unmarketable fresh vegetables in Orange County, New York. (Provided photo — CCE Orange County)

Food banks aren’t government agencies. They’re private, nonprofit organizations that receive most of their funding from individuals like you and me. 

They secure food donations from national food and grocery manufacturers, retailers, shippers, packers, growers, and government agencies and other organizations; then collect, store and distribute that food to smaller, front-line hunger-relief charities (e.g., food pantries and soup kitchens). Those smaller agencies then distribute the food directly to people in need. 

By several accounts, even America’s middle class is now coping with some measure of hunger. Many of the households that are currently experiencing food insecurity don’t qualify for federal nutrition programs and, as a result, are highly dependent on local food banks and other hunger relief organizations for support. 

Our region is served by the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, which, according to its data, distributes 31,041,617 meals annually to people struggling with hunger — 10% of the population. And 1 in 6 of those served are children. 

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Gleaning 

As the growing season comes to an end, almost all growers become gleaners. Gleaning is the harvest of leftover vegetables and fruits from gardens, yards and/or farms. 

Throughout Old Testament scripture we see commandments regarding the righteousness of leaving food in fields and orchards to be gleaned by those less fortunate.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” (Leviticus 19:9-10)

“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 24:19-22) 

In the book of Ruth, we read how Ruth “entered the field and began to glean behind the harvesters” (Ruth 2:3) and how the wealthy land owner, Boaz, instructed his farm workers to “let grain from the bundles fall purposely for her” and “leave it that she may glean” (Ruth 2:16). This is an ancient example of sharing abundance that can be applied to address the food insecurity felt by so many members of our community today. 

The image of hunger has become one of working families and individuals struggling to make ends meet, of people forced to choose between buying nutritionally acceptable food and paying housing or medical bills, of someone in your neighborhood who needs a meal. What a blessing it is to have something to give! 

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A Cooperative Extension gleaning program 

For 16 years now, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Orange County (CCEOC) has been delivering donated fresh foods to community organizations, food pantries, emergency shelters and soup kitchens in New York’s Hudson Valley. Many of these organizations have relied, at least in part, on donations of unused food from restaurants, cafes, bakeries, catering halls and the like. But many of those businesses have closed — some temporarily, others permanently — at a time when the number of people in need of food assistance is increasing. 

Food donations are still being received from farmers, growers and gardeners, however. And Orange County Extension’s gleaning team, which currently includes a handful of Master Gardener volunteers and staff members of CCE Orange County who have shifted their roles to help, and who wear masks made and distributed by CCEOC’S 4-H team, are working tirelessly to safely deliver that donated food to community members in need. The focus has shifted, however, from delivery to food distribution centers, food pantries, emergency shelters and soup kitchens, to making home deliveries. 

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Consider gleaning 

Post-harvest leftovers needn’t be plowed under or left to rot. With permission, volunteers can enter a field to harvest seconds (produce left in the field after harvest). Or crews can glean the field at the end of the season. Farmers may even be reimbursed by food banks or other organizations for the labor and packaging involved, but because food banks are nonprofit organizations that operate under tight budgetary constraints, their preference is always for zero-cost donations.

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