The columnist's daughter gathers what the Bible calls "gleanings."
The columnist's daughter gathers what the Bible calls "gleanings."

Our family mitzvah: picking fresh produce for those in need

Gleaning is one of our favorite family volunteer activities, though few people seem to know about it. The concept is pretty simple — and pretty old.

When we glean, we harvest fruits and vegetables from backyards and farms for families, seniors and individuals who have limited access to fresh food. The produce is usually surplus, meaning it’s extra and won’t necessarily be sold or used, so we pick it instead. Then we deliver it to the local food pantry and other organizations that distribute it to those in need.

I had been on the lookout for a volunteer opportunity that we could do together as a family, something that would stretch from the tween years through high school. I wanted the kids to make a long-term, consistent commitment to doing good. I wanted them to feel connected to the work, to know that they were doing their small but not inconsequential part in helping to repair the world — tikkun olam.

Gleaning was something the kids wanted to do from the get-go. I never had to nag, bribe or coax them with a reward.

Plus, we all enjoy any opportunity to be outside, and who doesn’t like to pick fresh fruits and vegetables? The first time I let our son use a knife by himself was on a beautiful farm cutting zucchini. When she was younger, our daughter looked forward to harvesting plums the most because she got to use the fruit picker to reach the highest fruit on the tree. Gleaning has also helped our kids have an even greater appreciation for the food they eat and to the farmers who grow it.

Perhaps the coolest thing about gleaning is that it connects us to our ancestors, as it’s a practice that can be traced back to ancient times. In Leviticus, God tells Moses, “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy 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 the stranger” (Leviticus 19:9-10).

When I asked Rabbi Ryan Bauer for clarification, he explained to me that this text is not actually about charity but about property law.

The Torah, he pointed out, is telling us that we never owned the land or the crop in the first place. What the farmers own is access to the first right to pass over the food. They cannot take everything because they don’t actually own it. The needy own the gleanings.

We, therefore, are giving those less fortunate what is rightfully theirs. Everyone is equally entitled to food that is fresh and healthy, and when we glean, we are helping to “right” this disparity.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “One in 10 Bay Area residents earns too little to cover the cost of living; of those, 62 percent earn too much to qualify for food stamps.”

Unfortunately, the Bay Area’s children are one of the most vulnerable populations impacted by hunger. “Even in Silicon Valley,” the article continues, “one in three children — about 200,000 — are food insecure.” And the food insecure are more likely to eat unhealthy food because it’s cheap, which leads to significant health problems (such as obesity and diabetes).

All summer long, my kids gorge on organic sweet peaches, plums and blackberries. We eat local heirloom tomatoes with basil from our garden, drizzled with olive oil and salt. We shave just-picked summer squash and zucchini into salads, and eat corn-on-the-cob so fresh we barely have to cook it.

But why should fresh fruits and vegetables be available only to those children whose families can afford it like mine can? It’s simply not right.

We glean with Farm to Pantry in Sonoma County, but there are many gleaning organizations around the Bay Area, including Urban Adamah, the Jewish educational farm in Berkeley that gives away 90 percent of its produce at its Free Farm Stand. To find an opportunity for you or your family, check out Village Harvest’s excellent directory.

Julie Levine

Julie Levine is a writer who lives in San Francisco.