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Of the Earth: Volunteers keep gleaning alive in Franklin County

  • Perhaps the most famous artistic rendering of gleaning is Jean-François Millet’s “The Gleaners,” produced in 1857. Courtesy photo/Musee D’Orsay

  • Sisters Olivia and Madeleine Leone of Deerfield, along with Smith College student Samantha Grossman, glean for Swiss chard and potatoes at Atlas Farm in Deerfield. The trio posed for a photographic rendering of Jean-François Millet’s famous painting, “The Gleaners,” which Olivia Leone said her family has at home. For the Recorder/Wesley Blixt

  • Jessica Harwood, shown at Atlas Farm in Deerfield, oversees a group of gleaners who gather leftover crops for Rachel’s Table in Springfield. For the Recorder/Wesley Blixt

  • Leda Cooks, shown at Atlas Farm in Deerfield, volunteers with a group of gleaners who gather leftover crops for Rachel’s Table in Springfield. For the Recorder/Wesley Blixt

  • BLIXT



For the Recorder
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

“When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleanings of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien.”— Leviticus 23:22

You can wander through several thousand years of “old-book” mandates to learn about “gleaning” — that is, of the gathering up of food that might otherwise be wasted and plowed under, and distributing that food to those who most need it.

Or, you might, as I did on Saturday, join a group organized by Jessica Harwood under the auspices of Rachel’s Table in Springfield, and then pick your way down a majestic row of Swiss chard and potatoes planted by Gideon Porth and his crew at Atlas Farm in Deerfield.

Assembled were gleaners from Deerfield, Belchertown, Smith College and Greenfield, and the brimming boxes of vegetables they picked were distributed to the Manna Soup Kitchen at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton, and to Kate’s Kitchen in Holyoke.

Volunteer Leda Cooks, a professor in the communications department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who deals with food equity and recovery issues internationally, had an even more direct destination in mind.

“My graduate students will be happy to get this,” said Cooks, cradling two bags of Swiss chard. “Too many of them are really food-insecure.”

Cooks is studying food recovery networks and their impact on shelters in places as far-flung as Appalachia, Italy and South Africa, and getting students involved in mapping exactly how food recovery works.

There is no shortage of volunteers or donation sites as the gleaning season is largely limited to the late summer and early fall, Harwood said.

“We have church groups, school groups, sports teams and just a lot a people who want to come help out” she said. The mission of Rachel’s Table is specifically to organize the community to alleviate hunger, and to reduce food waste at the same time.

Fruit, like apples, are especially welcome, Harwood said. Growers from northern Connecticut to Vermont get involved.

“You never know. Sometimes there is an abundance, sometimes almost nothing,” Harwood said.

She recalled that one year, at Harvest Farm of Whately, the peppers were deemed to be just a bit undersized.

“We picked about 40 cases,” she said.

For Porth, gleaning is a way to address built-in problems in the food system in a way that is fully consistent with the Atlas Farm mission.

“This is stuff that may have a blemish, but it’s still nutritious and tasty. We don’t want to just dump it,” Porth said. “We’ve been doing this for 10 years, and we’re really lucky to have volunteers like the folks from Rachel’s Table.”

Harwood found her own inspiration for gleaning at Salvation Farms in Vermont, a state where gleaning is generally, and predictably, prevalent. A Brown University graduate who majored in geology and biology, and then completed a graduate degree in environmental education at Smith College, Harwood has kept the gleaning going for 12 years.

She points to the biblical mandates that long made gleaning a part of Jewish tradition (and, at one time, of English law), as well as to the enthusiastic participation of Temple Israel in Greenfield and the Lander Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. Harwood herself serves as director of faith development and community engagement for Northampton’s Unitarian Society.

Gleaning actually crops up (so to speak) as a recurring cultural and political theme. Paintings or sketches by Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissarro and Winslow Homer are often reproduced. Perhaps the most famous is Jean-François Millet’s “The Gleaners” (1857).

“We have that one at home,” noted Olivia Leone of Deerfield, who posed for a photographic rendering of Millet’s painting.

Gleaning has also been a touchstone for social justice movements, including the Diggers in 17th-century England, who were resurrected as jovial anarchists in late 1960s San Francisco.

The gleaners of Deerfield slid their boxes of Swiss chard and potatoes into vans at the appointed moment, and slipped away as seamlessly as they had arrived, eager to make their pantry deliveries, and leaving the Atlas fields looking largely undisturbed. On Sunday, Rachel’s Table volunteers were in South Amherst to do it all again.

To enroll in this old and honorable movement, write to Jessica Harwood at jnanharwood@gmail.com.

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and is the author of “SKATERS: A Novel.” Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at wesleyblixt@me.com.