Gleaners Harvesting Properly


Illustration by Tom Bachtell

I have been enjoying short essays and posts by Charles Bethea in the last year or so in a way that I can explain with a simple metric. I always find myself wanting to learn more about something I was intrigued by in what he wrote. That is a sign of one kind of excellent writing, interesting enough to make me hungry to learn more, but concise enough that I feel satisfied if I do not have time to explore further.

Case in point below, and fortunately I had time to find out about one of the gleaners he mentioned. I chose the one in Atlanta, since I have spent much of the last year there. I have pasted a couple screen shots from their website into the excerpt of Mr. Bethea’s essay below, in case you want to click out and see a live example. It is about time that I share my appreciation for his writing, and no better a way to do it than with this:

The Robin Hoods of Food Waste

A society of gleaners (not to be confused with dumpster divers) learn the rules of harvesting food in unusual places.

CJ1Two dozen gleaners—not to be confused with foragers or dumpster divers—showed up for the second annual International Gleaners Symposium, held recently at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta. They were there to discuss the finer points of gathering neglected foodstuffs from roadsides, back yards, and other nonpublic places, and then donating them to the hungry.

CJ2.jpgThe gleaners sat in a classroom, drinking coffee and eating store-bought grapes. They were awaiting remarks from Ashley Pruitt, a local lawyer specializing in civil litigation, who had volunteered to explain the surprising number of ways that one can run afoul of the law while picking unharvested fruits and nuts for homeless shelters and food banks, as more than four hundred volunteer groups in the United States now do.

CJ3“A few weeks ago, I didn’t even know protection for food donation was a thing,” Pruitt, who wore a silk scarf around her neck, said before she began. “But I’ve been studying the case law. ”

One attendee, Jennifer Jans, described herself as an “outreach raccoon” for Hidden Harvest, a gleaning outfit in Ottawa. “We rescue fruit and nuts, largely from yards,” she said. “People will sign up their trees. Maybe they don’t want to harvest them, or they have too much fruit.” She listed some commonly gleaned Ottawan comestibles: “cherries, pears, black walnuts, and the rare apricot tree.” Also, “lots and lots of crab apples, which I whine about, even though they’re nutritious and delicious.”

Emily Worm, a network manager for After the Harvest, in Kansas City, Missouri, explained the history of gleaning. “It goes back to the Bible,” she said. “Farmers were supposed to leave the corners of their fields unharvested for strangers, widows, and orphans.” She added, “I think that’s in Ruth? That’s a book in the Bible, right?” She gleans sixty kinds of produce—“everything from sweet corn to sweet potatoes,” she said. “Strawberries to mustard greens.”

The lecture began. “How do you lose your protection under the Bill Emerson Act?” Pruitt asked the gleaners, referring to a piece of pro-gleaner legislation enacted by Bill Clinton in 1996. (Donald Trump has never tweeted the terms “food waste,” “food bank,” or “gleaning,” although he once wrote, “My two sons, Eric & Don . . . go on safaris & give animals to the poor & starving villagers!”) Pruitt went on, “Let’s say you pick up products from farmers and you donate them. And one day you decide, ‘I don’t want to check the food for bugs or other infestation.’ That may be considered gross negligence.” She added, “Don’t do that.”

A gleaner raised her hand. “Do worms count as an infestation?”

Dave Laskarzewski, from UpRoot Colorado, interrupted. “I think if you knew the fields you were gleaning in had animal waste—then maybe that’s negligent?”

“Definitely gross,” someone said.

Shawn Peterson, the director of Green Urban Lunch Box, in Salt Lake City, said, “You’re talking about apple worms, right? Well, codling moths have been found to have no harm to humans.”

“Yeah, same with aphids,” a woman said.

Next, the group parsed a bit of legalese regarding the protections afforded the hosts of gleaners. Craig Durkin, a gleaner with Concrete Jungle, in Atlanta, said, “This is basically stating, as I understand it, ‘We came into your yard to pick apples. If someone falls out of a tree, they can’t sue you, because you’re letting them in on good faith to pick fruit.’ ”

Someone asked, “But can our volunteers sue us?”

“No, it’s not your property,” Pruitt said. “Unless they fell out of a tree, and then you step on them intentionally.”

“Well, let’s say we’re using my ladder,” Peterson said. “And this volunteer falls off my ladder and gets hurt.”

“You could be protected,” Pruitt said. “Now, if they go to your house and use a ladder to save a squirrel, that’s different. The purpose of going up that ladder was not to pick apples.” A few gleaners nodded thoughtfully.

After lunch, Durkin led a walking tour of the campus’s fruit trees. “This is a serviceberry,” he said, stopping at a small, fruitless tree. “There’s probably a hundred on campus. They have this great little white flower and this really delicious berry that comes in around late May here. Like a blueberry. Excellent pie.”…

Read the whole story here.

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