Chico Gleaners carry on an age-old and environmentally friendly tradition
A recent morning’s ominous gray sky didn’t deter scores of seniors from packing into a muddy parking lot off Nord Avenue.
Two steady and seemingly endless streams of cars flow, one in and one out of the long driveway. Directing the orderly, elderly mob are a half-dozen aged gentlemen who trade off between traffic duty and loading bins filled with fresh produce, loaves of bread, dairy products, canned food, sweets and a roll of Christmas wrapping paper into backseats and trunks of the outgoing cars.
The real bustle is at the back of the lot, where more people line up with carts alongside newly arrived boxes of persimmons and pears stacked waist-high, heading into a large warehouse that serves as headquarters for the Chico Gleaners. Once inside, they move counterclockwise around a large square where they are invited to fill their carts with all the basic necessities and then some, the final row a gauntlet of cookies, cakes and pastries.
“As one of our old presidents used to say, ‘We’re the last plate before the pigs,’ ” explained Pat Smith, 81, current Gleaners president. “We go out in the fields and get what the farmer doesn’t pick up, like if they knock almonds off and leave some on the ground. We clean up any trees that they don’t harvest.
“We also go to the stores and get what usable food they would otherwise throw out for garbage.”
The Chico Gleaners is a nonprofit organization that distributes this food to its members every Tuesday. Members must be older than 50 and complete an application process, pay a $15 membership fee and a $35 monthly pledge. There’s a waiting list since the organization is limited to 150 people, each of whom is required to donate eight hours a month to the cause.
“It’s not hard labor like most people this age think of when they think of work,” Smith said.
“There’s something for everyone to do,” added Gleaners Vice President Don McClaskey, also 81. “We have one gal in a wheelchair; her whole body is paralyzed except her right hand. She takes those eggs every Monday, takes ’em outta their carton, wipes ’em off with a rag, throws the cracked ones away, puts the good ones in another carton, all with one hand. It gives her something to do. She helps out and it keeps her away from the four walls at home.”
Chico Gleaners started 31 years ago. Smith says it began with a few college women who wanted to teach low-income families to plant gardens. Then the students included the senior community, who took off with it and formed Gleaners chapters in Chico, Paradise, Pines, Oroville, Gridley and Magalia. The Chico Gleaners reorganized into their own, independent organization eight years ago.
Among the founders were Smith’s aunts, and she has been a gleaner from the get-go. McClaskey is a second-generation gleaner who joined about a decade ago after serving for 42 years as a volunteer firefighter.
“A lot of us are widowed,” said Loraine Gibson, as she handed out fruit alongside 90-year-old Gleaners Secretary Alma Meinberg. Both women’s husbands took part in the organization, too.
In addition to following family tradition, the members are carrying on a tradition as old as history itself in gleaning, the practice of gathering what’s left by the reapers. The Biblical Ruth was a gleaner, and gleaning has been immortalized by artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Jean-François Millet, whose painting “The Gleaners” drew criticism from the French upper class for glorifying the poor and working classes. Old European and American laws used to state a portion of agricultural land be dedicated to the poor. More recently, the acclaimed Agnès Varda film The Gleaners and I examines the life of modern French gleaners.
In addition to collecting for members, the Gleaners also give food to other nonprofits, including the Jesus Center, Esplanade House, the Salvation Army, several churches, other local Gleaners chapters and recently to fire victims through the Red Cross. Several major supermarkets and restaurants regularly contribute, as well as a couple of agricultural and produce suppliers.
While limiting membership and dedicating their primary service to seniors is a lofty goal, there are inherent problems. Namely, as the members age, they become less capable of performing the strenuous physical duties of agricultural gleaning, such as climbing ladders or working on their hands and knees.
“We find that the older ones want to do the work and aren’t capable, while some of the younger ones just don’t want to do it,” McClaskey said. Both Smith and McClaskey say that trend is changing, though, and they’re starting to collect more crops.
And while recycling other people’s waste into food for those who need it is great, many gleaners would argue it’s not the organization’s greatest service.
“A lot of members don’t know anyone when they come in, but they make friends,” Smith said. “It’s just a great safe place for people of this age to spend time. … Some members don’t even take food; they come in just because they want to see the people.
“One of our ladies said she liked it because she could stay as long as she wanted and then go home, otherwise [visitors] come to your house and you couldn’t get them to leave at the end of the day. That lady was here until she was 97 years old, until she was put in a home down in Sacramento where her daughter lived, and she sure was sorry to go.
“She climbed trees and everything, right up through her 90s. She was a good, hard-working gleaner.”