Things Gleaned

The ancient practice of salvaging surplus food is seeing a twenty-first-century revival.

It’s ten o’clock on a Friday morning, and I’m standing in the carport of a total stranger, staring at a four-foot-by-four-foot pallet of eggs stacked hip-high. I’m trying to figure out how many hundred-egg packages I can fit into my car. I reach my hand between the flats, fingering their fat sides: still cold. If I move fast, I can get them back to my house, unload them, and cover them while they stay that way. I start loading, pondering the definition of fast as it applies to the mass transport of eggs. Ten minutes later, I nudge the last stack into precarious place. A passerby glances at the piles of eggs bursting from the back of the car. Our eyes meet over our face masks. I nod, silently acknowledging how odd I must look with such an overwhelming load in the middle of a residential neighborhood.  

I am not an egg enthusiast, at least no more than I imagine anyone else is. Nor am I a restaurateur, urban chicken-raiser, 4-H mom, or farmer. I am a gleaner, and on this Friday, I happen to be gleaning eggs.

Glean is an old word for an old practice. A relative of foraging, gleaning is the collection and distribution of foods that might otherwise go to waste. In earlier times, when human life was more deeply connected to the immediate landscape, grain and produce from overburdened or disused fields and what remained on the ground after harvests was all commonly gathered by locals—gleaned—for private use. It was considered a service to both land and people, so much so that it receives mention in the Bible: the Old Testament repeatedly instructs farmers to leave some portion of the harvest in the fields for widows, travelers, and orphans.   

I stumbled into gleaning as a young environmentalist roaming the alleys, parks, and waterfront paths of 1990s Eugene. Gleaning was a way for college students like me to while away an afternoon and fill our empty bellies at the same time. It was a period when guerrilla gardening—planting on vacant lots and neglected spaces without permission—was still in practice, when organic foods and plant-based diets were still considered fringe. For me, at that time, gleaning was more abstract than concrete, one possible path to revitalized and sustainable local foodways and a way to preserve heirloom and legacy farms, gardens, and plantings while creating a functional urban canopy. It was a pretty solitary activity.

Now, I am far from alone. During the Great Recession years, gleaning surged, especially in the form of coordinated community groups like the Eugene Area Gleaners, which I’ve been a part of for several years. We connect property owners with gleaners, organize gleans, and help distribute food to the broader community. A lot of what we do is logistics. Increasingly, groups like ours are helping to fill existing gaps in the system. There’s a lot that’s broken in our country’s food system, even at the local level and even in the best of times. For instance, bakeries have to guess how much bread to make for grocery stores and restaurants. It’s hard to guess right during normal times, and even harder amid the pandemic. What gets returned is often close to or past the sell-by date, but far from being over the edge. Excess bread, produce, and other food can’t be sold, but it can be donated, so it goes to us—and it’s up to us to get it to people. Hence, the eggs.

Excess baked goods and dairy overruns are just a small part of the bounty we glean. With the gleaners, I have fileted invasive fish donated by the Forest Service, packed carrots from an organic family farm, picked apples and figs from an elderly woman’s backyard and blueberries from a nearly defunct farm whose owners are aging out, and collected tomatoes and fennel and potatoes and pumpkins from an overenthusiastic gardener’s plot. In the spring, we distribute seeds from our own gardens and donations from nurseries. In the fall, we operate a canning and preserving supply library and share expertise. Over the years I’ve seen quince and Concord grapes and chicken and bear go through one glean or another. It’s hard physical work in all kinds of weather. The sheer volume is almost always astounding: a single fruit tree can yield hundreds of pounds of fruit, and we glean it worms and all. What can’t be eaten by humans we send to the local pigs. In 2018, our group alone harvested and distributed nearly fifty thousand pounds of food, all of which would otherwise have gone to a landfill. And now, today, there are the eggs. Eggs, the only food eaten by nearly every kind of animal—and these have arrived just as gleaning has become an essential lifeline for food-insecure Oregonians trying to navigate the complexities of isolation, Zoom school, wildfires, and unemployment.

My small car will fit more eggs than seems possible—hundreds and hundreds of eggs. And they do indeed make it safely to my house, where I unload them onto the porch. I take a picture of the eggs and send it to a friend who recently relocated to the East Coast, a refugee from California’s changing climate and the unstable landscape of work in the era of COVID. Months ago, at the beginning of summer, she stopped by to say goodbye. That day, too, I was feeling overwhelmed, wrangling an abundance of some gleaned thing—blueberries, maybe, or squash. It was her first introduction to gleaning, and it had buoyed her pandemic-weary spirits. She had encouraged me, insisting it was important. 

“Today is egg day.” I text her, sending the picture. “So many eggs.” 

I rest my hand for a moment on my pile of eggs. For the rest of the day I’ll hear cars pulling up, a shuffling of the fleece blankets that I’ve used to cover them, and then a door closing as the eggs disappear, a few flats at a time.

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From the Director: What It Means to Be Seen

Editor's Note: Feed

What's Growing in John Day

Kitchen Ghost

Stepping Up in Southern Oregon

Things Gleaned

Mama Will Feed You

Clicking

Preserving Food, Cheating Death

Dead Horses

Eid al-Adha, Festival of Sacrifice

Posts

People, Places, Things

Discussion Questions and Further Reading