Themes / Home economy

Waste not want not

Urban gleaning

Kim Cornford

Manna Matters April 2011

One of the most fun and fruitful activities I have enjoyed in Footscray over the past few years has been gleaning. Some people call it urban food foraging, but I really like the idea of gleaning. I’ve become quite fond of picking up my long-handled hook, jumping on my bike with Mhairi on the back, and filling my front basket with lemons.

In fact, when travelling through Footscray with friends, I often find myself excitedly pointing out the beautiful nectarine tree I found last summer while jogging, the amazingly abundant apricot tree around the corner, and of course the multitude of lemon trees that furnish our pantry with lemon cordial year round.

Summer time often brings excited conversations with local friends about the latest fruit tree discovery in the neighbourhood. It is also a time of sharing abundance with each other, eating, preparing, and bottling fruit together. And the sharing continues through the year as we eat our way through the pantry. It really was a treat opening jars of figs preserved in port through the winter.

Over the past few years we have attempted to get ‘closer’ to our food. That is, we have been trying to become more aware of where our food comes from and how it is made. As we learn more about how land and resources are used in modern agricultural systems, the impact of how we live is illuminated such that the question of how we feed ourselves, becomes increasingly important. Our disconnection from land, farming, and food systems is not sustainable for ourselves, let alone our children.

And then there is the matter of waste. How many trees laden with fresh fruit are left abandoned every summer? The amount of food waste from supermarkets is shameful, so it’s no wonder we walk straight past food growing in our streets.

I found the nectarine tree last year when I squashed one underfoot on the footpath. I went back a few days later and knocked on the door of the house to ask if I could pick some of the fruit. Of course, said the owner, and brought me out a ladder and plastic bags to fill. We have another tree out the back, she said, so take as much as you like. This has been my experience several times over. Approaching people was a little daunting at first, but seeking permission to enter someone’s property is a good idea. When I’ve found fruit hanging from back fences down alleys and the like, I’ve just made a common sense call on whether or not permission seems necessary. The apricot lady, Carol, around the corner came to our door last year asking why we hadn’t been over to pick yet? We have traded the abundance from our passionfruit vine with her each summer. Sometimes I’ve given a gift of jam or bottled fruit to people.

Why is God interested in urban fruit tree picking? Well, it certainly offers a great opportunity to get to know our neighbours, and it is definitely making good of His earthly abundance. Importantly, it also sheds light on the system in which we normally operate and reminds us that there are alternatives. Power and ownership over our food and food systems is largely in the hands of a few very powerful multinational companies.

God gave the Old Testament laws to his people to ensure their wellbeing. The laws were given to frame social and economic behaviour, as well as spiritual. This includes the law around gleaning. Leviticus 23:22 says: ‘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 there for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God.’

The law for gleaning ensures that there is a system which usefully distributes its abundance, rather than seeing it go to waste or concentrated in hands that can no longer appreciate its full value. Leaving gleanings is another way of making sure there is enough for all.

Gleaning has been common in many cultures around the world for thousands of years. Over the past century, however, we have seen farming become mechanised, and operating systems become concerned for efficiency and productivity, leaving little or no opportunity for gleaners. Corporate ownership of agriculture and legal liability has increased, making food recovery next to impossible, even now when there is crop wastage.

Sometimes the urgent questions of food security in our country, and around the world loom large and seem overwhelming. But when I open up my pantry cupboard and see jars full of fruit labelled Anita’s apples, Dom’s figs, Carol’s apricots, Michelle’s cherries, Sunshine plums and Edie’s peaches, I am hopeful.