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‘Gleaners’ Fulfill Spiritual Commands To Feed The Hungry, Reduce Food Waste

Most people come to Dry Creek Valley, a corner of Sonoma County snuggled up against the Russian River, for its world-renowned zinfandels. Denise Matlow comes for the persimmons. 

“My mom raised us four kids on her own,” Matlow, who is retired but not retiring, said as she raised a red-pronged fruit picker to the green-gold leaves. “I was just always raised with the fact that food should not be wasted. So it just feels like the right thing to do.”

Matlow is one of a small band of wine country residents who gather every Thursday to descend on farms, fields, vineyards and—on this particular November morning—the grounds of a private estate. They are volunteers with Sonoma County Gleaners, a local organization that picks fruits and vegetables left behind after the main harvest has been trucked away.

The crew of eight women and one man—all masked and doing their best to maintain social distance—plunk the persimmons into rainbow colored plastic bags with crates inside. As the crates fill, they are carried to a waiting SUV where they are weighed and counted.

It is the most basic of manual labor—pick, carry, load, repeat. But it is also one of the most ancient forms of faith-based charity. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all mandate gleaning as a way to live out the divine commandment to care for the poor, the widowed and the orphaned.  

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“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it,” God said in Deuteronomy 24:19. “It shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings.”

And while the Sonoma group is not faith-based, its roster of volunteers include people of many faiths and none at all, like Eileen O’Farrell, a gleaner for 30 years.

“It’s not that I’m areligious, I’m just not connected to an organized religion,” she said standing beneath one of two trees being rapidly stripped of their shiny orange fruit. “And we need to help nature distribute things.” 

More people are thinking like O’Farrell and her fellow Sonoma gleaners. There are gleaning groups all over the United States and around the world, many of them faith-based, gleaning to close the gap between burgeoning domestic rates of hunger and food waste.

“There’s a tremendous amount of food that never leaves the fields,” said Shawn Peterson, executive director of The Association of Gleaning Organizations, a Salt Lake City-based non-profit with 180 member gleaning groups in the U.S. and Canada, about one-sixth of them faith-based. “Far more food never leaves the farm than anywhere else, except for the food that we waste in their own homes.”

According to a 2019 study conducted at Santa Clara University, one-third of all produce never leaves the farm, but gets plowed under or otherwise disposed of. And that’s where gleaners—usually equipped with little more than gloves and some kind of clipper—step in.

“I was on a glean in Indiana this summer,” Peterson said. “I personally picked up over a thousand pounds of cucumbers in four hours and there were another 30 or 40 gleaners in that field with me.” 

Many gleans are organized by religious groups or congregations. The Society of St. Andrew, a national gleaning organization based in Virginia, was founded by two Methodist ministers and their families who were part of the back-to-the land movement of the 1960s and 1970s. 

In 1983, the ministers visited a church surrounded by potato fields. In his sermon, one of the ministers said there were thousands of pounds of potatoes left unharvested just beyond the church walls and a farmer in the congregation took up the challenge.

“And so, after worship, everyone put on their grubby clothes and rolled up their sleeves and went out and started digging,” said Lynette Johnson, executive director of the Society of St. Andrew. “And sure enough, they found thousands of pounds of potatoes.”

They also found a new calling. Other local farmers offered up their fields, and the ministers soon gathered up one-quarter million pounds of potatoes to give away around the state. The Society of St. Andrew—named after Jesus’s disciple who helped feed the masses at the Sermon on the Mount—now has regional offices in nine states and gleaned 19 million pounds of produce in 24 states in 2019.

And while 90 percent of the group’s volunteers are faith-based—including Muslims in Florida and Sikhs in Illinois—religious belief is never required for gleaning.

“It is certainly not something we require, but it opens doors for us,” Johnson said. “Because every faith, not just the Christian faith, has a command to care for the less fortunate. So it’s easy to call a congregation of any faith and say, ‘Hey, remember that thing that your scripture tells you to do? You can come and do that with us.’”

The need for gleaning has never been greater than during the coronavirus pandemic. According to Feed the Hungry, the nation’s largest hunger-alleviation organization, one in six Americans—50 million individuals including 17 million children—will experience hunger or food insecurity this year. That’s up about 13 percent from 2018.

Those statistics are something Dani Wilcox, the founder and organizer of Sonoma County Gleaners, feels acutely. After she tallies up the haul from the private estate—13 pounds of figs and 400 pounds of persimmons—she delivers it to a food pantry in nearby Windsor where it will be parceled out to about 450 lower-income residents, including the vineyard, winery, and restaurant workers who make Sonoma Valley a top-tier tourist destination.

“So many people are out of work right now and they can’t afford to buy food,” she said, taking a break in the shade after unloading all the produce by herself. “And the earth should be nurturing and nourishment for all.”

Then, Wilcox, who claims not to be religious, connected the spiritual dots.

“It is the moral thing to do. It’s absolutely the moral thing to do.”

This article first ran at Religion UnPlugged. It is reprinted with permission. Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and more. She is the recipient of the Religion News Association’s 2018 award for best religion reporting at large news outlets.

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and more. She is the recipient of the Religion News Association’s 2018 award for best religion reporting at large news outlets.