Agnès Varda wrote and directed The Gleaners and I, a documentary that came out in 2000. What is a “gleaner,” you ask? According to Merriam-Webster, “gleaning” means “to gather grain or other produce left by reapers.” The beginning of the documentary follows gleaners gathering potatoes after the harvest is over. On a potato farm in the Beauce region of France, we’re told that the firm potatoes are sold in containers of 5.5 to 11 pounds, and these have to be a specific caliber, a specific size, “so we dump anything bigger.”
Gleaners Agnès Varda
'The Gleaners and I' filmmaker Agnès Varda
The documentary provided a few numbers: The potato harvest averages 4,500 tons per season, and 25 tons are rejected and dumped. It’s hard to tell from the film how much of those 25 tons are recovered by gleaneres. Potatoes can be rejected due to size, cuts or damaged spots. Since potatoes are a staple food, especially for the hungry, gleaning has gained a new-found popularity in the Beauce region. People wait nearby and follow the trucks that dump the potatoes, and the children lead the way to gather them. Strangely enough, as I reread The Grapes of Wrath recently, it was eerie to see this still going on — significant amounts of food being dumped after the harvest while people nearby are hungry and malnourished. One man that Varda follows gathers 200 to 300 pounds of large potatoes. Some people glean for an organization called Charity Meals that feeds the hungry. One of those gleaners says, “When I see all this go to waste, and that some people have nothing to eat, it’s really disgraceful.” This man is juxtaposed with another man that the filmmaker follows back to his trailer. The man we follow to the trailer tells of losing his truck-driving job after a cop stopped him and checked the blood-alcohol content on his breath. He says, “As long as there’s welfare money left, OK, but after that… we have to beg.” So much ground was covered here, between stories of urban gleaners, rural gleaners and Varda filming her luggage as “things gleaned” from trips, that many questions and thought-provoking subjects are raised. We move on to the wine region, where unwanted grapes are stamped to the ground in some vineyards, discouraging people from gleaning.

“When I see all this go to waste, and that some people have nothing to eat, it’s really disgraceful.”

  Varda, who also narrates the film (the “I” in the title), offers her theory on why most people do not allow gleaning: “Anyway, half the people are stingy. They won’t allow gleaning because they don’t feel like being nice.” A man refers to the penal code, though it’s not clear in what municipality he’s speaking of, which says gleaning is allowed from sun up to sun down, and only after the harvest is over. Varda suggests that these dated laws don’t cover much ground anymore. She asks, “Old documents talk of the poor, the destitute, but how are we to consider those who want for nothing and glean just for fun?” Art plays a large part in the film as well, as one found-objects artist is interviewed. Varda goes to several museums to inspect paintings that feature gleaners, such as “The Gleaners” (“Des Glaneuses“) by Jean-François Millet. Urban gleaners show trashcans behind supermarkets and bakeries where out-of-date food is discarded. Much of the gathered food actually looks quite nice, and some of it is still well packaged. But this happens in America, too. Before he passed away, my grandfather often visited his local supermarket and gathered the food they were throwing out that day. He passed it around to neighbors, gave it to churches and shelters and let my sisters and I eat our favorite pastries. It was astounding to see how much he gathered just from one store. We watch one man pick through discarded vegetables and fruit after a market, and the filmmaker asks about his diet. He says he eats six or seven apples a day. As we learn more about him, he reveals that he studied biology, he has a master’s degree and he lives in a shelter with a 50% illiteracy rate. At night, he teaches the shelter’s tenants how to read and write for free. Overall, the film lacked a strong focus, but it’s worth a watch, even if you don’t make it all the way through. It is disheartening to see so much food left after a harvest, but many people (at least in France) seem to know and abide by the gleaning laws. One man who owns many acres of land lets gleaners pick after the harvest, but he has them sign in to keep track of who is on his land. The most interesting thing I got out of The Gleaners and I were the questions. What happens here? How much food is left on the ground or dumped after a harvest? Why isn’t there a better plan for this low-to-the-ground or too-big-for-the-supermarket food? The easy answer is that it is not cost effective for the growers, the owners of the land. As a culture that is getting further away from the earth, from growing our own food, it’s a struggle to answer these questions. The first step is to ask them, to think about them and to engage others in thinking about them. The film didn’t strive to solve any issues involving food reuse, but instead the issues were raised in a quiet, whimsical manner. France is a fairly wealthy country compared to most, so it’s almost scary to wonder how much food is discarded in less developed farming countries.