Gleaning is an activity that combines a various and changing combination of need and inventiveness.
That combination is best illustrated in Agnès Varda’s extraordinary film, The Gleaners and I, in which she tracks a series of gleaners (who hunt for food, knicknacks, and personal connection) and shows that she, as an artist, is also always a gleaner.
In The Gleaners and I, Varda films herself combing her newly discovered gray hair, and there are many visuals of her aging hands. She frequently “catches” trucks on the freeway, forming a circle with her hand in front of the camera framing the truck in the center, then closing her hand as she drives past them.
Much of this footage is woven into the film to show that Varda, as a film maker, is also a gleaner. This concept is made explicit in the French title, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, which could be translated as “the gleaners and the gleaneress”.
A different combination of those same qualities—need and inventiveness—is currently being demonstrated across the United States, as the need for food has grown while food-bank contributions have fallen. Therefore, groups such as as the Vermont Food Bank have stepped up their gleaning activity:
The Vermont Food Bank’s gleaning program is no small operation. So far this year, it has gathered more than 230,000 pounds of produce, and there will be more coming in, even as winter arrives. The program has gathered as much as 400,000 pounds of produce in a single year. . .
There is a definite need for the food that the gleaning program salvages. Federal surplus food donations have dwindled sharply this year. The two million pounds of food that the Vermont Food Bank used to receive has been cut by 50%.
“So that’s a million pounds of food that we won’t be distributing,” said Michelle Wallace, program manager for the Food Bank.
Wallace noted that hunger in Vermont is real, and it’s no longer just feeding the elderly or young children in needy families.
“Now we’re seeing working families that aren’t earning enough to put food on the table,” she said.
Hunger can also mean more than a simple lack of food. “Hunger isn’t just about a lack of calories,” Wallace said. “It’s also about a lack of good nutrition.”
The gleaning program is helping fill both gaps: the loss of federal surplus commodities, and the need for nutritious, healthy food. Thus, it has become doubly important.