The Importance of Gleaning For Survival

Tracing its origins back to ancient times, the act of collecting surplus produce from fields and leftover fruit post-harvest has a longstanding history, dating back to biblical eras. This communal practice was regarded as a gesture of goodwill among neighbors.

The advent of mechanical harvesting failed to diminish this tradition, as anything overlooked by the machines became fair game for the needy or those quick to seize opportunities.

The practice of gleaning gained even more traction during challenging economic periods, such as the Great Depression. Overlooked potatoes in a freshly harvested field held greater value than gold nuggets for families struggling with hunger. In times of significant disasters, the concept of “survival gleaning” assumes a pivotal role in ensuring the enduring survival of individuals.

What is the Essence of Gleaning?

In certain societies, gleaning seamlessly integrates into daily life—an ordinary task following the harvest, dedicated to ensuring the ongoing well-being and prosperity of one’s family. This practice, also known as gathering, foraging, or wildcraft, takes on diverse nuances influenced by regional, cultural, and societal factors.

Engaging in activities like digging clams or gathering oysters along the public coastal beaches of the United States represents a form of gleaning that serves both recreational and essential purposes for certain families. At its core, gleaning involves collecting remnants, distinguishing itself from scavenging, which leans towards a more illicit and predatory nature. Scavenging requires actively seeking resources amidst competition, while gleaners lawfully acquire usable food that would otherwise go to waste.

One could contend that potential gleaners must actively seek out farmers or other food producers to establish an agreement. However, the legitimacy of locating the rightful owner of a cultivator and obtaining permission to glean after their harvest surpasses the clandestine approach of surreptitiously collecting resources.

Not only does this method hold more legitimacy, but it also tends to yield significantly superior results. By far.

Gleaning’s Ancient Roots

gleaning’s ancient roots

Some of the earliest written references to gleaning come from the Bible’s Old Testament, but gleaning has been in progress since the Stone Age. Language in authoritative Bible chapters, such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy, promotes gleaning as a way for the poor to feed themselves, and instructs farmers to leave some edible produce in the ground specifically for the gleaners.

Through the late 18th century (the 1900s), gleaning was still standard practice throughout Europe. In some towns, clergymen would ring church bells to signal the start and end of the “Gleaning Day”. Once the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and commercial harvesting machines began appearing in the fields, gleaning as an institution, ended. The new farm machinery left little behind that was worth gathering.

However, in times of economic distress, individuals and families still glean to feed themselves. Depending on the size of the fields and the crops being grown, family-sized groups and even church leaders have proven able to negotiate arrangements that are akin to gleaning. Helping harvest hand-picked produce such as sweet corn or watermelons for the grower can easily result in food payments that benefit both parties, for example.

And let’s not forget, there are far more edible resources in the world than cultivated fields. Forests, lakes and rivers, seasides, and domestic gardens can all provide sources of edible food in times of need.

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The Contemporary Thrust of Gleaning Initiatives

In the 21st century, the pervasive issue of food insecurity has conferred legitimacy upon gleaning, especially for charitable purposes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that a staggering 30 to 40 percent of the nation’s annual food supply goes to waste, with a substantial portion being farm produce. To address this wastage and provide sustenance to those facing hunger, organizations such as Feeding America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) spearhead programs aimed at redistributing usable food.

Typically, these collaborations unfold between sizable farms and equally substantial “food bank” institutions. The intricacies of securing federal grant funding, coupled with the challenges of navigating bureaucratic hurdles, often result in organizations with robust legal resources being the primary participants in such initiatives. However, the democratization of information through the internet has expanded access, potentially empowering a broader range of organizations to overcome these obstacles and contribute to these programs.

The Significance of Gleaning in Survival Scenarios

In the face of any disaster, the stability of your food supply can be compromised. Even under normal circumstances, an extended power outage may result in the spoilage of all the food stored in your freezer. A period of unemployment can escalate into a dire situation, ranging from struggling to purchase groceries to finding oneself displaced and living out of a car. Life throws unexpected challenges, and suddenly, the fight for survival becomes a personal battle, even when it seems like nobody else is facing the same struggle.

In the event of a full-blown apocalypse, reliance on the once-efficient supply chains that delivered food to your doorstep becomes futile. The dependable “Grid” transforms from being impervious to becoming a distant memory virtually overnight, and society’s customary responses to system failures of such magnitude are seldom beneficial.

If you’ve prepared with a well-stocked survival food cache, immediate concerns about food in the short-term may be alleviated. Immediately after a disaster, your focus will be on adapting your shelter and safeguarding your family. While foraging for food may not be an immediate priority, it will eventually become crucial to replenish dwindling supplies.

Regardless of your shelter location, there are likely foraging resources nearby that you’ve never considered. In urban areas, you can find fruit and nut trees, edible weeds like dandelion greens, abandoned windowsill and rooftop gardens, and even resources in abandoned warehouses. In rural settings, foraging options include unused agricultural produce, berries (with a pocket guide for easy identification), orchard fruit, mushrooms (with caution), nuts, and various wild edible plants.

Reflecting on personal experiences, even in an off-grid lifestyle in the Montana mountains, our family enjoyed foraging and consuming the fresh, free bounty surrounding us, from chanterelle mushrooms in autumn to abundant morels in the spring. The glacial lake nearby provided trout in season, and wild game was plentiful in the deep wilderness.

When in survival mode, it’s prudent to research your shelter area beforehand to identify potential edibles, especially by considering the practices of indigenous tribes in the region. For instance, the Salish and other Northwest area tribes foraged for camas root, nettles, and various medicinal plants, all of which still thrive in the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, the Cherokees in the southeastern U.S. farmed staples like corn and beans but also gathered a variety of wild foods, including lamb’s quarters and nuts from hickory, oak, walnut, and chestnut trees—resources that might still be available near your survival shelter.

Navigating Gleaning Etiquette

It’s crucial to acknowledge that when you engage in foraging for food, you might not be the sole seeker in your vicinity. Others, possibly sheltering nearby, are likely foraging as well, and wildlife also relies on this practice for survival. For instance, huckleberry gatherers are well aware that bears share a fondness for the berries, depending on them for nutrition before hibernation.

To ensure harmony and prevent future food shortages, adhere to these sensible guidelines while foraging:

  • Forage only in legally permissible areas; avoid trespassing.
  • Verify that the food is free from pesticides.
  • Respect private property boundaries.
  • Refrain from consuming anything you cannot unequivocally identify.
  • Gather only what you can realistically use.
  • Leave no trace of your presence.
  • Thoroughly wash any foraged food before consumption.
  • If you’re aware of others engaging in gleaning, leave some resources for them.
  • Preserve the long-term sustainability of the environment by leaving several plants intact.
  • Keep in mind that the wildlife, which may serve as a food source for your family, relies on the same resources you are gathering—deplete their food, and they will depart.

Strategic Considerations for Effective Gleaning

blue bucket full of cherries is hanging on a tree

When prioritizing gleaning activities, several factors come into play, including the season, travel distance, available tools, and the suitability of tools for specific crops. As certain foods are only accessible during specific times of the year, understanding the seasonal variations is key. The distance to travel influences the frequency of return trips for gathering, while the availability of vehicles, livestock/carts, or wheelbarrows impacts the efficiency of gleaning, with different tools suited for different crops.

In the midst of a seasonal abundance, it’s imperative to prioritize foods available for a limited time frame, such as wild mushrooms, as well as those that offer maximum nutrition and enjoyment for your family, like berries.

Prioritize your foraging endeavors based on:

  • Distance to the food
  • Access to the food
  • Harvest window
  • Nutritional value
  • Enjoyment value
  • Storage and preservation considerations

Consider a scenario where you have access to abandoned apple trees a couple of miles away, huckleberry bushes near your shelter, and a beehive with honey a couple of hours away. Prioritize them based on distance, accessibility, nutritional value, and harvest window:

  1. Huckleberries (Distance: Closest, Accessibility: Easiest, Nutritional Value: High, Harvest Window: Continuous)
  2. Honey (Distance: Moderate, Accessibility: Moderate, Nutritional Value: High, Harvest Window: Limited)
  3. Apples (Distance: Farthest, Accessibility: Moderate, Nutritional Value: Moderate, Harvest Window: Extended)

Honey takes precedence due to its limited availability, high nutritional value, and versatile uses. Despite potential risks, the medicinal and long-lasting properties make it a top priority. Following that, apples are prioritized for their nutrient-rich qualities and extended storage potential. Huckleberries, easily accessible and with a continuous harvest window, are considered last, allowing for daily consumption without disrupting routines.

Harvesting the Abundance: Gleaning Fields and Beyond


Gleaning has evolved from a simple, rewarding practice into a well-organized and economically efficient activity in numerous nations. In the United States, entities like The National Gleaning Project orchestrate extensive networks of volunteers. These volunteers, operating within legal frameworks, systematically gather surplus or leftover produce from commercial fields. Subsequently, they deliver the collected food to food banks for distribution to individuals facing economic hardships.

The assortment of legally acquired produce collected by these dedicated gleaners includes oranges, grapes, corn, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a diverse array of other items, totaling millions of pounds annually. The reach of gleaning organizations extends beyond the fields, encompassing the gathering of usable but unwanted food from grocery stores and restaurants. Some organizations even go a step further by processing the gleaned food to enhance its longevity, ensuring it can feed a greater number of people over an extended period.

Closing Thoughts on Gleaning

As the gleaning movement gains traction, it emerges as a powerful force in alleviating hunger and ensuring individuals receive the necessary nutrition for maintaining good health. Embracing similar practices offers a sustainable means of feeding your family during periods of survival mode. The investment required is solely your own physical labor, and the gleaned food has the potential to be a lifesaver.

Whether facing a larger crisis or dealing with more personal setbacks like job loss or economic challenges, gleaning stands as a viable strategy to navigate through challenging times. Consider it as a practical approach to see you through tough circumstances, offering sustenance and resilience for the long term.

Suggested resources for preppers:

How to find Food in any Environment

The #1 food of Americans during the Great Depression

Survival Foods of the Native Americans

If you see this plant when foraging, don’t touch it!

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