Last week, I had the pleasure of going “gleaning” at Boulder’s Munson Farms with my friend Bryant. While from the outside it might have just looked like riding in a pickup truck to a cornfield and picking corn for two hours, it was much more than that. We worked with Pete Terpenning, who is the Gleaning Coordinator for Community Food Share, a local food bank. Munson Farms was kind enough to let us glean for free from a cornfield that they had already picked, and once we were finished gleaning, Pete drove a full trailer load of corn to Community Food Share to be available for those who need it the most.

I had never picked corn before, but I got the hang of it pretty quickly. To pick corn, you simply grab the base of the ear of corn and break it off the stalk, as I demonstrated in this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjxlxDFLhKo, Taken by Bryant Irawan

One of my favorite memories from that day was walking through the cornfield between the rows of tall stalks, and getting a glimpse of the Flatirons, the famous mountain backdrop of Boulder, over the top of them:

I felt completely surrounded by sustenance, in many different ways. I was surrounded by a natural organism that has been so fundamentally important to human development and culture over many thousands of years, a group of five people that were willing to spend their Friday morning to help others, and of course, a bunch of ripe and ready corn to eat. I didn’t know this before, but if you eat corn fresh, you don’t have to cook it, so I shucked the corn and ate it right away. I only ate corn that was too small or partially spoiled by the crows, don’t worry!

The freshest corn I've ever eaten
The freshest corn I’ve ever eaten

Having this gleaning experience reminded me of something I’m very passionate about, but haven’t talked about yet on this blog: food democracy. It’s the idea that everyone has the right to accurate, detailed, and complete information on where their food comes from, and how the food system works. It’s also puts decisions into the hands of consumers, who ultimately dictate the direction of the food system, as long as they have accurate information about it. Every time we go to the grocery store, we’re casting our “dollar vote” by choosing to spend money on organic or non-organic produce, grass-fed beef or factory farm beef, cage-free eggs or cage-full eggs, and the list goes on.

An important aspect of food democracy is active participation and feedback by consumers. Yes, we 100% deserve to be receiving accurate information about where our food comes from, but food democracy isn’t just about sitting back and waiting for the information to get to us. It’s about getting out and finding out for ourselves. I believe every child should have the opportunity to visit a farm, get their hands dirty in the soil, and really start to gain an understanding and appreciation for the amount of time, energy, and effort it takes to get food from farm to table. I recognize that it’s hard to find the time and money to visit agricultural areas when you live far away in a big city. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether you live in the middle of Denver or next door to Munson Farms; an ear of corn comes from a stalk in a cornfield that was painstakingly grown and maintained for months by farm workers, then put in a truck or flown to the grocery store, where you bought it and took it home.

Me working in the cornfield, Taken by Bryant Irawan
Me working in the cornfield, Taken by Bryant Irawan

My morning of gleaning taught me a lot about corn and humbled me, causing me to think more about where my food comes from and the immense journey it takes before it ends up on my plate. As someone who didn’t grow up on a farm or spend much time on farms as a kid, it’s so easy for me to take food for granted, but experiences like this remind me of all I have to be thankful for.

This experience also made me reflect on corn in particular. I like eating corn, but in recent years my relationship with the hearty grain/fruit/vegetable (no one can really decide what group it belongs to) has turned sour. The corn industry receives an obscene amount of subsidies as part of the Farm Bill (subsidies totaled over $84 billion from 1995-2012), many corn farms in this country use tons of pesticides which run off into waterways and cause pollution and dead zones, corn is often used as feed for cattle, which is bad for them and bad for us when we eat that beef, and corn is now a major ingredient in practically all processed foods, disguised in different forms like High Fructose Corn Syrup. It’s true that America’s relationship with corn became unhealthy decades ago, but gleaning last week reminded me that there are still some, like Munson Farms, that are farming corn the right way.

In my opinion, there are a lot of things wrong with the American food system, and a lot of things wrong about the way food companies communicate to consumers. I could go on and on about the meat industry, rampant pesticide use, outlandish subsidies, and huge environmental and health impacts, but those issues will have to wait until later posts. For now, I am grateful to have had this opportunity to spend some quality time on a farm, learning where my food comes from, and helping those in need.

My friend Bryant and I with all the corn our group collected