The French have a long, proud history (protected by law and immortalized in film) of preventing produce waste by opening up their farms after harvest to allow scavengers to collect the left overs. Gleaning still takes place in the countryside, but works a little differently in modern cities, where it takes the form of collecting discarded fruits and veg after farmers markets and from commercial trash bins.
And in these tough economic times, gleaning or “doing the end of the market” is more common than ever in Paris and smaller cities, especially among youth, the homeless and…the elderly.
To get a better sense of who gleans, how and why, the French High Commissioner for Active Solidarity Against Poverty commissioned a report on the topic from a French think tank called The Center for Study and Research on Philanthropy (CerPhi). So, CerPhi conducted a qualitative study, scoping out prime gleaning spots in Paris and two smaller cities and conducting in-depth interviews with over forty men and women spotted in the act.
While they didn’t exclude people who consider gleaning a political or environmental act, the report focuses on those who glean out of financial necessity. In other words, everybody but the freegans.
The most interesting take-away is the fuller profile of urban gleaners the study provides. For the most part, they are young people, retirees and the homeless. Young people have the fewest health and safety concerns about eating discarded produce. Longtime homeless men use gleaning as a survival mechanism and continue to do it even when they have housing. Retirees glean out of financial necessity and are, for the most part ashamed of gleaning (with the exception of a small minority who barter what they glean and gain self-worth from the practice).
The study specifically investigated the relationship between gleaners and social security to better inform government programs. What they found reveals a lot about pride and the challenges of aging in a failing economy. Take these two quotes, for example:
Woman, 82 years old, Paris
Have you been “doing market ends” for a long time?
It’s not really market ends, I buy, I see if I see something.
I think I saw you last Saturday.
Yes, Saturday I was here. If I see something, I pick it up but I buy a lot. Really, I do, I buy a lot, and I do it if I find something, otherwise I mainly buy,
Did you buy everything in that bag?
No, I didn’t buy everything, but I bought a good part of it, a large part of this here was picked up, it depends on the day.
Woman, 75 years old, Paris
Are you familiar with food aid, like soup kitchens?
No, I don’t go there.
Because my grandchildren work and that doesn’t interest me.
If you read French, the full report is a heartbreaking page-turner full of nuanced questions about what gleaning means to different groups, concepts of transiance and urgency as well as larger societal questions about the relationship between hunger, public assistance and stigma.
And it’s getting harder and harder to be a gleaner, the study reports, as farmers markets and supermarkets go to greater lengths to destroy food waste and discourage scavenging. Sadly, the report lacks clear-cut recomendations. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.
PS Thanks, Gillian, for sending me an article on this study in the first place.