The Seed and the Story: Channeling the Tradition of Gleaning

Gleaned potatoes. Photo from the Society of Saint Andrew.

The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring folklife, sustainability, oral history, human rights,and community in Yell County, Arkansas.   The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier.  Please remember to support your local paper and independent media!  The Seed and the Story column is just of many features you can find on the Boiled Down Juice.  Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  If you enjoy our posts, please tell a friend. And thanks for reading.

As the days grow longer and the afternoons warmer, Arkansas’s agricultural fields are beginning to grow and produce food for our tables.  This week’s column focuses on the ages-old tradition of crop gleaning and the role it can play in today’s society.

First, some background information.  A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit with Representative Kathy Webb, the recently named director of Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.  With a 27.6% poverty rate throughout the state, Arkansas ranks six points above the national average.  According to a recent USDA survey, Arkansas is third in the nation for instances of food insecurity, meaning that a significant number of Arkansans, especially vulnerable populations like children and the elderly, are unsure where their next meal will come from. Access to fresh fruits and vegetables are especially difficult, as these tend to be some of the most expensive items in the grocery store.  In some areas, it can be hard to find fresh food stocked in the stores whatsoever.  The Hunger Alliance addresses the multiple layers of poverty-based hunger through several channels, including the ancient tradition gleaning.

Gleaning refers to act of collecting any leftover crops from the fields after it has been commercially harvested or collecting crops from fields where it is no longer economically profitable to harvest, due to factors such as low market prices. In some studies it is estimated that around 40% of the crops are wasted after a commercial harvest, withering in the field.  Through the process of gleaning, these fresh foods are gathered and then transported via food banks and distributed to the hungry, providing people with nutrient-rich food and preventing the needless waste of crops rotting on the vine.

The concept dates back thousands of years, with mention of this practice documented extensively in both the Bible and the Quran.  Typically gleaning is referred to as leaving the edges of the field un-harvested for the needy, travelers, and widows. Here’s an oft-quoted verse from Leviticus 23: 22 regarding the practice in Jewish society: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Leave them for the poor and the alien.”  Drawing from its Biblical roots, this practice was also common in Europe throughout the 18th and 19th century and provided countless peasants with food to sustain their families.

Here in Arkansas, since the summer of 2008, the Arkansas Hunger Alliance has worked in partnership with the Society of Saint Andrew, a national non profit whose mission is to provide hunger relief and save excesses fresh produce to donate to critical feeding agencies.  To make gleaning effective, the agency relies on volunteers—everyday people, church groups, and organizations who are willing to denote their time to gather the crops for distribution.  In recent years they’ve also partnered with the Department of Corrections, which has increased the gleaning yields exponentially.  The year before they began working with the Department of Correction they gleaned 289,000 pounds of food, says Michelle Shope of the Arkansas Hunger Alliance.  The following year, with the help of the Corrections Maintenance Crew, 800,000 pounds were gathered.   With the help of both volunteers and the Department of Corrections, they’ve gathered 1.9 million pounds of food in the past four years. Their goal is to reach six million pounds a year, helping to eradicate childhood hunger.

If you or your church or community group is interested in taking part in this ancient tradition of gleaning, you can contact Michelle Shope at 501-399-9999 or .  If you’re a farmer and want to have your field gleaned, contact the Society of Saint Andrew at 1-800-333-4597 or visit them online at

Do you take part in the tradition of gleaning?  What are some historic examples of this practice here in the river valley?  I’d love to hear about them.







  1. […] You can read a past “Seed and the Story” column about gleaning in Arkansas here.  […]