Standing on the edge of a Rosebank Farms field on a predictably hot August morning, a pair of pickers squinted at the corps of six white women crouched over pink-eyed bean bushes at the field’s far end.
The pickers, natives of Guatemala, wore the unisex uniform of experienced farm labor: Gloves to protect their fingers, long-sleeved shirts to ward off mosquitos, ball caps to shield their faces from the sun and bandannas to keep dirt out of their mouths and wind off their cheeks. But they weren’t quite sure what to make of the mostly middle-age women crisscrossing the field’s rows with their black plastic buckets.
Gesturing toward the seemingly pell-mell harvest, one of the pickers ventured a guess: “They’re from iglesia? (church)”
Close enough. The women were delegates of the Kosher Food Pantry, which regularly sends volunteers to glean produce from Rosebank Farms fields that already have been cleared of what’s fit for sale or damaged by deer.
Their recent one-day hauls included 1,100 pounds of cabbage and 1,400 pounds of bok choy.
Although everything that’s gathered gets sent back to the Jewish Community Center for processing and distribution to various hunger relief agencies, organizer Jacki Baer stresses that gleaning is a nondenominational operation.
We’re not serving a religion, we’re serving a community,” Baer says. “I don’t think it makes any difference to a poor person which denomination their food is from. We don’t ask the religion of our clients, and we don’t ask the religion of our volunteers either.”
The Kosher Food Pantry was launched two years ago in response to a local hunger crisis: Nearly one in five South Carolinians is now classified by the USDA as food insecure, meaning they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food. While the crisis hadn’t directly affected many area Jews — “I seriously doubt that we have more than one or two Jewish clients, let alone kosher,” says Baer, who keeps the pantry’s anonymous service records — members of the Charleston Jewish Federation were concerned about their larger community. They reached out to Baer, a longtime hunger fighter who founded Charleston’s chapter of Plant-A-Row for the Hungry and Fields to Families, a still-active organization that connects hungry people with fruits and vegetables.
Baer is Jewish. But her service work revolved primarily around churches, and she still has to remind herself not to lapse into Christian idioms when rallying Pantry volunteers. “I’m so used to working with Christian people, I want to say ‘pearly gates,’ but that’s not right,” she says before quoting a Biblical verse that promises the “Gates of the Lord,” in Jewish parlance, will open for those who feed the hungry.
The practice of gleaning comes straight from the Bible: A passage in Leviticus explicitly instructs farmers to “not wholly reap the corners of thy field,” so the poor and hungry can take the food they need.
Locally, the gleaning tradition got its start at Baer’s house. A master gardener, Baer was tremendously excited by a 2000 conference presentation about the Plant-A-Row program. Her late husband, Richard, skeptically asked: “Where are you going to get people in Charleston to plant a garden in May?” He suggested she make friends with farmers and figure out where their castaways went.
One of Baer’s oldest farming friends, Sidi Limehouse, has hosted every Kosher Food Pantry gleaning. “He’s the only one who will let us come on Sunday,” Baer explains.
The Kosher Food Pantry isn’t just for Jews, but in deference to its Jewish Community Center home, the organization upholds a number of Jewish laws and traditions: The pantry doesn’t stock meat, since dietary codes restrict the mixing of meat and dairy products. (Packaged items that don’t qualify as kosher are accepted, but stored in a separate bin.) And gleanings are never scheduled for Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
“Most of the things they’re into, we’re done with,” Limehouse says, explaining how he assigns gleaning groups to fields on his 75-acre farm. “They can’t make too much of a mess. I’ve had them screw up, go to the wrong field, but overall it’s been good. When we get what we need out of (a field), we don’t want the food to go to waste.”
This year, the Kosher Food Pantry has distributed 3,444 meals and shared 1,010 pounds of harvested produce with other agencies. For the women who gathered at Rosebank last week, though, the year’s work can be counted head-by-head and ear-by-ear. “The corn was a little buggy, so I decided to shuck it,” volunteer Jill Levy recalls. It took her three hours to remove the husks from 170 pounds of just-picked corn. Another volunteer dragged bushels of English peas to her son’s swim meet so other parents could help her shell and bag them during the interminable waits between heats.
There’s a social dimension to the gleaning, too. “I only moved here 21/2 years ago, so I listen to the gossip, find out who’s who in the city,” Cynthia Stetzer said as she plucked spindly pink-eyed beans.
Gleaners at the bean session agreed that having to stoop over the squat bushes was challenging, but possibly not as hard as chopping cabbage. “There’s a lot of hacking and whacking,” says Gail Barzman, who returned from the corn harvest swathed with red dirt. Barzman didn’t mind.
“It’s so direct,” Barzman says of her contribution. “No CEO is getting 33 percent of this.”
Being able to knowledgeably complain about the rigors of cabbage-picking is what Marsha Gewirtzman might value most about her involvement in the program.
“It’s sort of back-breaking, but it makes you appreciate the people who pick this food,” Gewirtzman said, sweating in the sun.
Stetzer, standing nearby, nodded: “There are people who are doing this eight hours a day.”
“For all of us who live such a fortunate life, I think gleaning gives you a very direct connection,” Gewirtzman continued. “You go and buy produce, and you look at it differently.”
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
How to help
WHAT: Gleaning for the Kosher Food Pantry
when: After registering, volunteers will be contacted with time and dates.
WHERE: Rosebank Farms, 3951 Betsy Kerrison Parkway
MORE INFO: Volunteers must register and complete a waiver online. For forms and more information, visit www.jewishcharleston.org/food pantry.aspx