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Gleaning Is Good For the Soul and the Community 

Gleaners, from left, Rebecca Sheppard, Carly Monahan, and Emily Kaminsky at a local farm. Photo courtesy of Community Harvest of Central Vermont.
It’s as old as the Bible and as recent as this year’s harvest. Gleaning, the practice of gathering what was left in the field after the harvest, was a Hebrew custom. The Torah commanded farmers to leave a portion of their crop for their poorer neighbors. Modern gleaners still go out to pick up what the reapers have missed and it’s still a means of providing fresh fruits and vegetables to those who can’t easily cover the cost of basic necessities. 

Community Harvest of Central Vermont was founded about seven years ago when Allison Levin saw a need for a more efficient means of gathering and distributing the gleaned produce.

Levin is a farmer’s daughter and, according to those who know her, a model of organizational skills. One of her college professors encouraged her to consider setting up a gleaning system as part of an internship. She would plan essentials such as delivery routines, data collection, and volunteer assignments  “So, the whole thing just sort of fell into my lap,” says Levin, Community Harvest’s executive  director. 

A small army of volunteers keeps the program going. Their roles aren’t limited to walking the fields and gathering overlooked crops. They also help by sorting and cleaning produce, keeping track of the amount collected, and conducting outreach programs. 

The food goes to food pantries, senior meal programs, early childhood settings,  communal meals, schools, and after school sites. Community Harvest does not, however, describe itself as a group of  “fortunates” helping “the less fortunate.” Volunteers come in all ages, all sizes, and from all walks of life. They include those who are recipients as well as those who just want to help. 

On a golden October morning, Levin and two volunteers gathered outside Levin’s home in Berlin to talk about their gleaning experiences. Deborah Messing, from Montpelier, admits that she was wary at first. She wondered if a back problem would limit her ability as a worker but she discovered there were a variety of jobs.

“I chose to help with the collection of tomatoes,” she says. “When I arrived for the day, Allison gave us our mission. ‘Glean the yellow tomatoes, just the yellow. Try not to step on the red tomatoes.’“

“In a complicated world, I had this simple task. Allison told me that if I couldn’t pick up a filled box, just wave and someone would come by to get it. I feel like I’m receiving more than I’m giving. To be out on a day like this … collecting food… It’s very satisfying. It’s social, too. We talk a lot.” She smiles, “Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to focus.” 

Lynn Wild, who taught nutrition at UVM for five years, says “I cannot stand to see food wasted. I became a dietician to teach food skills, to reduce waste … [volunteer gleaning] is work that doesn’t feel like work. I meet people … and I love watching the potato cleaner. It’s a barrel that sprays the vegetables as they travel through. They look so pretty when they come out.” 

Presentation is important to Levin. Produce that’s not good enough to offer as is, may be used for cooking. If it doesn’t meet the standards for cooking, it can be used for animal consumption. If the animals turn up their snouts, the food goes to compost. 

Gathering and distributing the produce is about more than hunger. It’s about health and education. Almost all that’s harvested from the local partner farms is organic. In addition to nonprofits, the fruits and vegetables are also distributed to schools for activities like Mystery Box. 

Lynn Wagner, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Berlin Elementary, has been using Mystery Boxes in her classroom for almost 10 years. All through the school year, boxes of gleaned products arrive with labels hidden. Wagner introduces each one with a game of 10 Questions. Her kids call out their guesses, “Is it a fruit?”  “Is it a root vegetable?” 

When Wagner unveils the box, its contents are distributed and the exploration begins. Students weigh and measure in metric and in pounds and ounces. They’ll write about their sample as they learn descriptive words, (smooth, fuzzy, firm, horizontal, vertical, etc.). They’ll talk about climate, growing conditions and soils. Sometimes there’ll be cooking and there’s always tasting. Everything in the boxes, from the familiar tomatoes to the exotic kohlrabi, has been salvaged from local farms. 

It’s a simple concept with far-reaching benefits and, for the volunteer workers, there’s also the treasure hunt aspect of gleaning. Searching a field after the harvest can be a little like panning for gold, only so much better.