November 29, 2022


Gleaning: It’s not just for ancient Israelites anymore!

The ancient Levitical practice of leaving excess grain for those who are experiencing hunger has found a new manifestation in modern-day Memphis.

Church of the Holy Communion’s newest outreach ministry began with a phone call from a nearby synagogue. They had started collecting unsold food from local farmers’ markets and turning it into meals for hungry neighbors. But, they faced a challenge: Too much food!

Holy Communion had a complementary challenge: A recent renovation project had given our church a brand-new kitchen, but COVID restrictions prevented us from using it. Our appliances were untouched, and our freezers were unfilled.

It was a match made in heaven.

Our Jewish neighbors started bringing food to the church once a week and a small army of parishioners assembled to figure out what they could make with it. While COVID restrictions were still in place, our gleaning ministers cooked in their homes and brought packaged meals back to the church’s freezers. Now, they gather in the church’s kitchen to cook and freeze.

Together with our friends from Beth Shalom, Holy Communion’s gleaning ministry has provided meals to hundreds upon hundreds of people through local outreach partners. And, we have done it all with food that would otherwise have been wasted.

Through this ministry, we have all learned a lot about the diverse ways that people in our community experience food insecurity. Some of our neighbors are hungry because they are experiencing homelessness. Others are hungry because they live in food deserts and lack transportation. Still others are trying to make ends meet by stretching the food that comes home from their kids’ public school cafeterias, all of which closed during the pandemic. The one thing that all of these people have in common is the experience of not having enough nourishing food to eat, and the tremendous fear that follows close behind.

In his American Dream speech at Lincoln University (June 6, 1961), Dr. King said: “…We spend more than a million dollars a day to store surplus food in this country…I know where we can store that food free of charge – in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of people who go to bed hungry at night.”

Today, surplus food in the United States tends to be wasted rather than stored, but Dr. King’s advice remains sound: Put excess food in the stomachs of hungry people. Our gleaners, some Jewish and some Christian, have become the bridge between those who have too much and those who have too little.

As our gleaning ministry has grown, we once again face the challenge of having too much food. (Our latest source of abundant, year-round food is a local college where students have formed a club to glean leftover produce from their dining hall.) So, we have enlisted other congregations to help – more volunteers, more freezer space, more connections with community partners, more fellowship among gleaners from different communities of faith.

This is a ministry that any church could replicate, because the only monetary cost is for the packaging materials and any supplementary ingredients that are needed to complete a recipe. Beyond that, all you need is a source of fresh food that would otherwise go to waste and a lead volunteer who can create recipes, schedule volunteers, and make connections with community ministries that provide direct relief to hungry people.

There is a lot of wisdom in that Levitical law. Gleaning is good for hungry people and good for the environment. We have discovered that gleaning is also good for the soul.