At The Gleaners’ Kitchen we believe that access to good, healthy food is a universal right. We strive to provide food at no cost to any who ask.
Gleaning has been practiced for as long as agriculture. Where there is food, there is waste, and gleaners transform that waste into usable food. Biblically, gleaners were poor peasants who picked up crops that had been left in the fields after the harvest. Today, The Gleaners’ Kitchen gleans its food from dumpsters.
According to multiple independent studies 1 , 2 almost half the food produced in the United States is thrown away. We believe this waste is flagrantly disrespectful to the environment and the millions of people in this country (including ourselves) who cannot afford healthy food. Our response to this waste is to make use of it. At night, after the stores close, we go behind the back entrance, hop into a dumpster, and collect all the discarded produce we can. Every night we bring back to our kitchen thousands of dollars worth of fresh food.
But is the food really worth thousands of dollars? Here is a story: One night we dumpstered a roll of $1.39 stickers. Several dozen orange dots soon became scattered over our kitchen. All our spices cost $1.39. Our dish rack (also dumpstered) cost $1.39. So did our oven, some mugs, and a print of Frida Kahlo on the wall. Our laptop was now equivalent to one hundred and thirty nine copper disks. Or maybe one orange dot of paper and adhesive. The dumpster warps our sense value. All these signifiers tossed away, mixed in with organic fruit and coffee grounds. At some point those stickers meant something. At one point, the 500 bananas we pulled out of the dumpster were worth something. But now they were just sitting in our kitchen, piled high to the ceiling, covered in orange dots boldly declaring their value of $1.39.
The capitalist system we live in insists that in order for something to have value it must have a price tag; it must be sellable. No one will buy a dozen eggs with one egg cracked, so the entire package gets tossed. One November we dumpsted 27 packages of Halloween cookies; no one would buy them after October 31st. Grocery stores must over stock all of their produce, because no one wants to shop at a store that looks half empty. And all of that overstock inevitably finds its way into the dumpster.
The Gleaners’ Kitchen quietly tries to underthrow this capitalist value system by consuming little and wasting less. We believe that in order for something to have value it need not be sellable, only usable. We drink from mason jars and use humus containers as tupperware. We turn vegetable scraps into soup stock. We believe an apple’s value can never be worth $1.39, but it might be worth a bouquet of flowers or a hug from an old friend.
The Gleaners’ Kitchen strives to create a public space where all forms of value can be exchanged freely. We imagine a cafe, decorated with dumpstered flowers and cheap art, where people hungry for a different world can come and exchange ideas. There will always be coffee and tea and warm lentil soup. Meals will be served every day at 6:00 pm, with special events on the weekends. We imagine concerts, poetry readings, academic lectures and craftivist workshops, all facilitated by the preposterous amounts of free food our society has somehow forgotten. Art will be everywhere. It will be shared as freely as the food. No one will leave The Gleaners’ Kitchen without a bit of cardboard in their pockets and a bag of vegetables for their table at home.
This is an experiment. The goal here is not to start a business. It is absolutely not about making money. The point isn’t to profit, it’s to prove that this is possible. We aim to show that it is possible to feed hundreds of people high quality food without ever having to exchange a dime. To prove that we can wash away the green money slime that covers our society by washing away the brown dumpster slime that covers our oranges. To show to all those who value protocol over practicality that there are other ways to move through the world; other ways to make change.
Dumpstering is about finding wealth that others overlooked; wealth that was camouflaged by bureaucratic red tape so well that most people don’t believe it exists, even when it is right in front of their eyes. We look beyond this red tape disguise and see the wound hidden underneath the blood soaked bandages. Our society’s food circulation system has ruptured. A slimy green knife has cut through cut through its veins, and now thousands of pounds of food hemorrhage into its dumpsters every night. And the red tape designed to heal the problems only makes things worse. We see ourselves as healers. We rip off the bandage and start rerouting the blood so that nutrients end up where they can be most useful. We are society’s kidneys, filtering its waste and reassimilating what we can. We strive to close the loop between production and consumption ; creation and destruction; to integrate all of societies processes into a sustainable whole. We are societies decomposers; the bacteria and fungi that live on the forest floor; the insects that come out at night and make use of the forests waste. We transform the waste into our bodies and when we are done we leave the soil fertilized, renewed, and ready for next year’s growth.
To create this space we need help. We need artists to suffuse the world with art. We need dumpster divers to suffuse it with food. We need musicians to make our rhetoric into poetry. We need money for rent and transportation, but money is the least of our concerns. Most of all we need visionaries. We need people who imagine the world different than it is and who want to help us make it so.