Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How the Ancient Practice of Gleaning is Still Getting Food to the Needy

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA

On a muggy Wednesday morning, before the sun has burned off the morning’s clouds, Lionel Greenawalt drives across his 100-acre Westmoreland County farm to a field of sweet corn.

While Greenawalt and his children pick an average of 400 dozen ears of corn each morning, at the moment, they have more corn than they can sell.

“It was kind of rainy this summer season, and we weren’t able to get into the field to plant every five to seven days,” he said. “So what happens is we have a lot of corn that comes in all together.”

That’s where gleaning comes in.

So Old It's Biblical

Each year, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank provides around 27 million pounds of food to those in need. Almost a quarter of that food is fresh produce, much of it procured from area farms via gleaning.

Throughout the growing season, the food bank stocks its warehouse by picking excess food crops that might otherwise go to waste. Greenawalt Farms is one of the food bank’s 35 farm partners.

The food bank’s gleaning program began in 1991, long before awareness of ad hoc food recovery swept into most U.S. municipalities.

While gleaning might seem like a new means of combating waste and hunger, it's actually an ancient practice. So old, in fact, that the Old Testament commands farmers to leave the edges of their fields unpicked so those in need can harvest for themselves:

"And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of they field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of they harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger." (Leviticus 19:9-11)

Lisa Scales, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, said it’s important for people within a community to take care of one another.

“I think that there’s a responsibility," she said. "We want to have thriving communities because thriving communities benefit our entire region of southwestern Pennsylvania.”

In the Rows

Greenawalt negotiates the steep descent toward the cornfield and tries to avoid groundhog holes. He pulls into a grassy lane behind the food bank’s big white truck. Its side reads, “Partnering with Farmers to End Hunger.”

Seven volunteers are working their way through four rows of corn.

Credit Margaret J. Krauss / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Kit Eagan picks corn for Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank clients.

One picker, Kit Eagan, is a doctor who took a year-long sabbatical to pursue non-medical interests.

“We don’t like to see it go to waste, there’s a lot of food value there. There’s people hungry in this country and if I can do them some good I go that route.”

“I wanted to see the farmers who feed us, what their experience is,” she said. “It’s amazing. I can’t believe what these people do to grow crops to feed all of us.”

Credit Margaret J. Krauss / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Jack Greenawalt doesn’t remember exactly how he got hooked up with the food bank, but he said he’s glad he did.

In the row next to Eagan is Beth Gulyasy. A medical technician who normally spends her days performing heart ultrasounds, Gulyasy said she likes going out to farms to glean.

“The first thing is to feed people, and the second thing is you really appreciate the work that goes into a farm, and how the earth produces," Gulyasy said.

She turns toward the other volunteers, “Did anyone look at the roots?" she said. "It’s phenomenal. It’s like another planet … but it’s ours.”

An ear of corn grasped around its middle has the same feel as the business end of a baseball bat. Under the shade, the gleaners sidestep down the six-foot-high rows of corn, wrenching the ear away from themselves and down with a flick of the wrist.

After an hour or so of picking, the group takes a break. Jack Greenawalt, Lionel’s father, approaches the crew. To the volunteers’ amusement, he munches an ear of sweet corn he’s pulled from the field.

“I love it,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve eaten it my whole life. I’ll go to the cornfields and that’s how I sample whether it’s getting ready to pick or not.”

The elder Greenawalt farmed for 65 years before open-heart surgery made him slow down last year. He doesn’t remember exactly how he got hooked up with the food bank, but he said he’s glad he did.

“We don’t like to see it go to waste, there’s a lot of food value there,” Jack Greenawalt said. “There’s people hungry in this country and if I can do them some good I go that route.”

Seeing Where the Food Goes

Food bank volunteers gleaning on Greenawalt Farms is exactly the kind of local involvement Pennsylvania Rep. Dave Reed has in mind when he talks about addressing poverty in Pennsylvania through his Empowering Opportunities Initiative.

“It’s not like you’re sending your tax dollars to Washington or Harrisburg, hoping something comes back to your community,” Reed said. “You’re actually seeing the people in your community you’re helping. You’re seeing where that food goes.”

Reed, chairman of the House Majority Policy Committee, said direct involvement is one way to make tax dollars go further as budgets continue to tighten.

“I think people are more aware of the people in their communities that are struggling,” he said. “When folks have that awareness they’re a little more conscientious of the decisions they’re making and more willing to help shift resources around to help other folks."

At Pittsburgh’s Homewood-Brushton YMCA on a Saturday morning, resources are being moved on a vast scale. Two lines of people wrap around an outdoor playground. In the middle are pallets of farm fresh potatoes, apples, collard greens and onions, augmented by pallets of canned and frozen goods.

This is the other side of gleaning.

When a Paycheck's Not Enough

The morning’s food distribution is one of 16 direct distributions within the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s Produce to People, or P2P, program.

Connor Sites-Bowen is the program’s coordinator. He manages the logistics of distributing the 3.6 million pounds of food P2P clients receive each year.

"We serve around 400 clients, depending on the distribution," he said. "At each one we give out about 20,000 pounds of food or more."

Sites-Bowen said that the effects of the recession continue to manifest, and the number of families he has seen coming to the food bank for help is growing.

“I started at food bank in 2010, which was two years into the recession, and numbers climb and climb and climb,” he said.

Candy Avery is one of those newer clients. She waits in line with her grocery bags.

“My husband’s job is seasonal, so a lot of money has stopped coming in and you’re hungry,” Avery said. “Your stomach, it hurts sometimes, and you have to get out here and do what you have to do.”

The food bank’s gleaning program provides people like Avery with fresh produce they might not otherwise be able to afford.

“When I go into Giant Eagle more often than not I walk past (the produce section),” Avery said. “I settle for canned goods here and there, but the fresh produce is the big deal here,” she said.

Current debate about federal food assistance has raised a pervasive assumption about poverty. Looking around at his clients, Sites-Bowen challenges the often-heard argument that people who are in poverty struggle because they’re not working hard enough.

“The new jobs that are being created during the recession are not the jobs that were there before the recession," he said. "They’re minimum wage service jobs for the most part, and minimum wage service jobs don’t pay enough for the most part to get people together.”

Darell Williams, a longtime volunteer at the Homewood distribution and a cook at the Hilton Garden Inn, agreed.

“When you’re working, they think that’s going to feed you, but by the time you pay your bills and everything it comes down to food shopping," he said. "And you may not have enough to go food shopping.”

In the 11-county region served by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, 375,000 people are eligible for food assistance. But food bank CEO Lisa Scales said only about a third of those ever come through the food bank’s doors.

Scales added that even families with full-time wage earners — a third of the food bank’s clients — are having a tough time putting food on the table.

Sites-Bowen said that food bank clients don’t ask for help just because they can, but because they need to.

“Nobody wants to come through this line at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning and get food," he said. "People want to work. People want to earn a good wage for a good day’s work. People want to go home and spend that money feeding their families, clothing the children, sending them to school, and getting on with their lives.”