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National Site

Earth Day Garden Cleanup

26.04.2018 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Harvest Against Hunger, National Site, Volunteering

Americorps VISTA Grace Plihal serves with Food for Others in Fairfax, VA, 30 minutes outside of the nation’s capital. Food for Others is a hybrid food bank and food pantry, both storing and distributing millions of pounds of food every year. In 2017, a VISTA position in conjunction with Harvest Against Hunger (HAH) was created with the purpose of gleaning fresh produce from the area. Last year, the HAH VISTA brought in an additional 23,000 pounds of food. Food for Others believes that with the help of the community, we can eliminate hunger in the Fairfax area.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Florida aimed to discover if there was any correlation between gardening as a child and eating habits as an adult. They surveyed 1,351 college students, asking them questions about their fruit and vegetable intake and whether they had participated in any sort of gardening early on in their lives. Their findings: people who gardened as children ate, on average, 15 percent more fruits and veggies than those who had not.

 

Reading about this study planted a seed in Americorps VISTA Grace Plihal’s head. Food for Others provides weekend packaged meals to Fairfax County elementary school students who are receiving free or reduced lunch during the week. One of these schools has a garden that was not being taken care of or utilized to its full potential. After a few weeks of planning and coordination, Grace and 5th-grade teacher Katie held the elementary school’s first annual Earth Day garden cleanup. Armed with seeds, shovels, and gloves specially made for smaller hands, the class of 24 got to work on the garden. At one station, a group focused on weeding the rain garden and learning about native plants. Another group prepared the soil for bee balm, vegetable seeds, and an Allegheny blackberry bush. The third cleared a bed of invasive mint and planted radishes, carrots, and lettuce in its place. Then, they all rotated so that they could experience the other stations.

 

 

A different class had previously planted strawberries that were just beginning to flower. Grace pointed out that the blooms would soon become fruit, and the class was floored. They had a much harder time envisioning their future blackberries, as one child said, “That’s going to have blackberries next year? It just looks like a stick!”

 

 

There was no way to know which of these kids were receiving the anonymous weekend “Power Packs,” which consist of two non-perishable breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and two snacks. But as of 2017, 70.4% of the school’s student population was receiving free or reduced lunch– meaning that a solid portion did not always know where their next meal would be coming from. As the ten and eleven-year-olds turned over the soil and read the directions on the back of the seed packets aloud, Grace envisioned a world in which every child had a bountiful harvest right in their backyard.

 

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Farm to Fork: Gleaning and Feeding in Belle Glade, Florida

19.04.2018 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Gleaning, Harvest Against Hunger, National Site

Harvest Against Hunger AmeriCorps VISTA, Elise Tillema serves at the Society of Saint Andrew (SoSA), a non-profit connecting farmers, agencies, and volunteers to glean produce in central Florida. In 2017 alone, SoSA saved 28,561,789 pounds of produce (86 million servings) with 37,482 volunteers at 5,960 events. Formed in 1979, SoSA serves the states of Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, North & South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia with additional gleanings in the Midwest. In 1995, the Florida Gleaning Project was launched to coordinate gleans and saves over 2 million pounds of produce each year statewide.

Belle Glade, Florida is a small town hemmed in by farms on all sides. An impoverished agricultural area, Belle Glade grows and processes primarily sugarcane. Agriculture is embedded into the landscape; towers of smoke can always be seen in fields, a required purging for sugar production and roads with dips and divots with grooves left by truckloads of produce. Within the town proper is the Lighthouse Café, a ministry built directly inside project housing. Lighthouse Café feeds, educates, and provides child-related services. A recent partner to join SoSA’s gleaning outreach, Lighthouse invited SoSA, CROS Ministries, and Heritage/Roth Farms to participate in the full cycle of gleaning, from farm to fork.

 

 

On the morning of April 3rd, Elise, her coordinator, and several volunteers went out into the field to glean. After a harvest of cabbage, lettuce, radish, and tomatoes SoSA delivered the produce to a local agency, as per usual. However, with the help of chef Paula Kendrick and Melanie Mason, representatives of the Florida Department of Agriculture, and SoSA, together cleaned and prepped the gleaned produce for serving the following morning.

 

 

Not only did SoSA glean and prepare the food for the agency, but assisted in putting on a food demo for the gleaned produce. Showing clients the process behind their meal will hopefully empower them to replicate the nutritious meal, creating a cycle of good food. As the pioneer event, SoSA and the Florida Department of Agriculture aspire to grow this outreach to more agencies and partners in the future. In addition to preparing and teaching about the food, SoSA handed out kitchen tools and recipe cards for anyone who wanted them. SoSA hopes to invest its patrons in gleaned food in all stages, from the agency to the community.

 

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Produce Sorting 101

13.04.2018 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Food Bank, Harvest Against Hunger, National Site

Harvest Against Hunger VISTA, Brianna Nash, serves at Community Food Share, a member food bank of the national hunger-relief organization, Feeding America. Serving the Boulder and Broomfield Counties on Colorado’s Front Range, Community Food Share distributed 10 million pounds of food in 2017, enough for 22,500 meals a day. Along with 43 partner agencies by which food is distributed, Community Food Share has an onsite pantry floor, mobile pantry truck, and Elder Share program. 75% of the food distributed by the food bank is fresh produce, dairy, and other high-protein items. Brianna serves as the produce and gleaning volunteer coordinator, engaging volunteers in growing and harvesting local produce for the food bank.

 

There are a couple things that make Community Food Share different than some of the other sites in the Harvest Against Hunger cohort. While Community Food Share is part of the Feeding America network, the organization also resides in a state where the growing season is quite short. Fresh fruits and veggies can only grow outdoors in Colorado from late-May through mid-September. This reality may be inescapable, but Community Food Share strives to provide fresh produce all year round to all that utilize the food bank. The produce comes from all over the country every week – mangoes from Mexico, oranges from Texas, apples from Washington, and potatoes from Southern Colorado.

Bulk 2,000lb pallets of carrots. Volunteers usually sort these and put into cardboard boxes.

 

Large pallet of mangoes. One of five that came in a shipment.

 

With a well-established volunteer network, Community Food Share sees thousands of volunteers come through the doors every year. Almost every day, volunteers are engaged in produce sorting activities. Usually, volunteers are sorting large 1,500+ pound totes and pallets of produce into smaller boxes or into red mesh bags for easy takeaway. Sometimes the produce is in perfect shape, sometimes it isn’t. The trickiest part of our operation here is figuring out how to empower volunteers to make the correct decisions in “isolating” or composting produce. A carrot might have three legs, but that doesn’t mean it’s inedible!

 

Volunteers working on bagging apples from large tote in produce sorting area.

 

The AmeriCorps VISTA is currently working on signage and a standard operating procedure for volunteer produce sorting. This process has been interesting and has delved into the realms of food safety, food bank warehouse protocol, and produce research. The Feeding America network has many standards by which sorting occurs; it’s been up to Brianna to translate that information into volunteer-accessible instruction.

A few examples are:

  • A slightly bruised apple is not a bad apple
  • Onions skins sometimes have strange discoloration and its ok to peel a few layers back to check if it’s ok
  • Soft produce (like oranges and tomatoes) is much more likely to harvest mold internally than hard produce (like onions and potatoes)
  • Weird shapes are almost always ok!

 

Orange bagging by volunteer in warehouse.

With her supervisor, Brianna decided on creating large visuals that exemplify the above bullet points. Large magnetic signs will be made for the produce sorting area at Community Food Share. These signs will be attached to the wall above the sorting tables and will include visual “bad” and “good” photos of apples, citrus, carrots, potatoes, and onions. Since they will be magnetic, staff will also be able to move around the warehouse, if volunteers are sorting in another area. Additionally, the VISTA will create a Community Food Share produce sorting SOP by the end of her term. This will allow staff members to reference sorting protocol and provide that information to volunteers in an accurate manner.

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First Week In Tifton, GA

22.03.2018 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Gleaning, Harvest Against Hunger, National Site, Volunteering

Harvest against Hunger Americorps Vista Taylor Rotsted is serving as a gleaning specialist in southern Georgia at her Host Site, the Society of Saint Andrew (SOSA). The Society of Saint Andrew in Georgia has provided people in need more than 15 million pounds of salvaged potatoes and other produce through the Potato and Produce Project. This has resulted in approximately 45 million servings of food going to Georgia’s hungry. SOSA works with both volunteers and farmers to grow the Georgia Gleaning Network and glean fresh produce, reduce food waste and alleviate hunger throughout the state.

 

Getting your hands dirty takes on a new meaning when you’re gleaning. The work isn’t ‘romantic’, good photo ops are far and few between and volunteers are difficult to assemble (especially at 8 am on a weekday). Recruiting volunteers to glean is not like coordinating other community events. There are last minute changes and a degree of flexibility needed from volunteers that makes it difficult to coordinate with larger groups and organizations. Thankfully, Taylor discovered a good source of volunteers early on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taylor’s first week of service took her through the whole cycle of ‘feeding America’s hungry’. She harvested food from the field, distributed to agencies, distributed hand to hand, and worked at the soup kitchen to cook for and serve the hungry. She enjoyed helping people in need but the experience was also beneficial for connecting with potential volunteers and leads on new farmer donors. It’s similar to finding good workers in the private industry; if you can’t hiring within – see who your competitors have. Even though those organizations aren’t exactly competitors – sharing volunteers has been a beneficial practice. As they say ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. Also, Taylor realized that many of the more involved volunteers are also the ones that Harvest against Hunger and the Society of Saint Andrews serve. With a unique volunteer opportunity like gleaning, recruiting in unique places is only logical.   

 

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New Year, New You

01.02.2018 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Food Bank, National Site

For many people living in poverty, eating healthy is a luxury. Eating healthy has been marketed to the masses in America as something that costs a lot of money through purchases such as gym memberships, exercise equipment, and expensive dietary foods and supplements. That is why Harvest Against Hunger AmeriCorps VISTA, Amy Reagan located in Fairfax, VA; teamed up with a Virginia Cooperative Extension SNAP-ED Program Assistant to instruct a nutrition course for the clients of Food for Others. The participating clients are learning how to eat healthy on a budget. All the recipes they learn contain food they can receive from the Food for Others pantry, including a plethora of wonderful produce. Once the 2018 gleaning season gets back into full swing, the extension agent will be able to incorporate seasonal fruits and vegetables for our clients to take home with them.

 

Food for Others staff members with apples

 

In order to set a good example for their clients; the Food for Others staff is participating in a produce consumption challenge, created by Amy. Over the course of her VISTA year, Amy has noticed that there would be produce donated that the staff at Food for Others had either never seen before or had never tried. For example, one client was asking about what an acorn squash was and how to prepare it. None of the staff the client talked to knew, so she left without taking an acorn squash. When a staff member told Amy the next day about what had happened; she realized there was a great training opportunity. She created a list of 42 pictures of different fruits and vegetables that farmers had donated to Food for Others through the Virginia Food Crop Donation Tax Credit. Amy then met with each staff member to review the different produce, identify what they did not like, and note what they have not tried. This challenge will last from February 1, 2018 until December 1, 2018, to ensure that staff members try produce from Virginia’s spring, summer, and fall growing seasons.

 

Food For Others staff member eating a carrot

 

The rules to this challenge are simple:

1) You get 1 point for each item of produce you eat.
2) You can get 1 bonus point for trying a fruit or vegetable you did not already know the name of.
3) You can get 2 points for trying a fruit or vegetable you didn’t like before.
4) You can get 5 points for bringing in a client-friendly recipe for any of the produce you try.
5) Once a week you will record your total points will be recorded.

The staff member with the most points will win a $100 gift card to a grocery store.

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AmeriCorps VISTA Harvest Against Hunger Program

05.01.2018 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Farm to Food Pantry, Food Bank, Gleaning, National Site, Volunteering

Harvest Against Hunger Capacity VISTA Rachel Ryan serves at Northwest Harvest, an independent state-wide hunger relief organization with headquarters in Seattle, WA. Northwest Harvest delivers free food to more than 360 food bank and meal programs across the state, 70% of which is fruits and veggies. In an effort to expand the amount and the variety of fresh produce food programs receive, Northwest Harvest launched their Growing Connections program. Now in its third year, Growing Connections has reached over ten counties across the state, helping to provide the necessary tools and resources to assist communities with launching their own ‘Farm-to-Food Program’ (F2FP) initiatives.

 

Rachel created and edited this short film that explains the Harvest Against Hunger program from those who serve and support it directly. The footage comes from Harvest Against Hunger’s training from this past fall. Click the link below to learn more about this unique program and the impact it has in communities across the country.

 


 

 

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Food For Others Sweet Potato Cook Off

19.10.2017 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Food Bank, National Site

In March 2017 Harvest Against Hunger AmeriCorps VISTA Amy Reagan surveyed the clients at her host site Food for Others to see which fruits and vegetables they would like to receive. One of the vegetables people said they do not like receiving is sweet potatoes. This is because a lot of the clients at Food for Others did not know what to do with them. Instead of turning away the sweet potatoes, Amy came up the idea of having clients taste dishes with sweet potatoes.

 

On October 12, 2017 Food for Others hosted a staff sweet potato cook off so the clients could taste different recipes and vote on which one they enjoyed the most. As a result clients could sample the food and ask Amy questions about sweet potatoes and receive recipe cards. Each client who sampled the sweet potato had at least one dish they truly enjoyed. One client was even inspired to write his own sweet potato recipe on a blank recipe card to share with others who may not know how to cook them.

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HAH VISTAs Attend National Conference on Hunger

13.10.2017 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Farm to Food Pantry, National Site, Washington Site

Harvest VISTAs

Harvest VISTAs from Washington and Virginia attended the Closing the Hunger Gap Conference in Tacoma on September 12 & 13. The conference, held every two years, brings together national and local leaders in hunger relief and social justice to share ideas, learn, and develop strategies to reduce hunger and improve racial and economic equity. The conference theme for 2017 was “From Charity to Solidarity.”

Keynote speaker Malik Yakini, founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, opened the conference with an inspiring and challenging speech, suggesting that solidarity means that each of us must do our part to liberate ourselves, as we’re all in this movement together. Keynote speaker Beatriz Beckford, campaign director of MomsRising and longtime grassroots organizer, closed the conference with a call to action: service without a movement toward change is not social justice, and a challenge: are we doing enough to abolish hunger?

In addition to attending sessions and hearing keynotes, Harvest VISTAs networked and ideas-shared with hunger relief organizations staff from across the country. They also assisted in facilitating a conference session titled “A Fresh Approach to Farm to Food Pantry,” which convened a panel of innovators from across Washington to share ideas and best practices with conference participants.

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National HAH VISTA Weathers Hurricane Irma & Helps Clean Up

12.10.2017 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Gleaning, National Site, Volunteering

As a part of its national pilot project, Harvest Against Hunger partnered with Society of Saint Andrew (SoSA) to place a Harvest VISTA with the Florida Gleaning Project to build systems and capacity to support state-wide gleaning efforts. Forrest Mitchell started his term in February of 2017. Here, he reports on the recent hurricane damage in Florida to his project’s farm partners and how Hurricane Irma shifted priorities for his project.

Four weeks after Hurricane Irma, Floridians continue to work hard cleaning up the aftermath. Debris is still on the sides of roads waiting to be collected, loose power lines dangle from splintered beams, flooding comes quickly after normal rains only to negate weeks of hard work, and mosquitoes plague the dusks and dawns of each day in great numbers. All the while, the next tropical storm approaches and residents hope for the best. There is plenty of work to do.

Forrest made it through the storm unscathed, as despite losing power for three days and internet services another week, his hometown of Titusville, was well prepared for this storm and recovered well. Unfortunately, many Florida farms were not so lucky. Farms in southern Florida counties saw as much as 90% crop losses, with millions of dollars worth of losses and necessary repairs. The fields of corn Forrest anticipated gleaning with volunteers, beginning the first of October, have blown over and stunted in growth, requiring another month before there is anything substantial to pick. Now, with no produce to distribute but plenty of eager volunteers, SoSA is continuing the hurricane recovery any way they can.

 

Bekemeyer Family Farms, a hydroponic U-pick strawberry producer, and gleaning partner of SoSA’s, fell weeks behind the planting season because of intensive preparations for Irma. The week after Irma passed the state, SoSA Presbyterian volunteers went out to the farm and helped prepare the soil for the towers that will house strawberries. By the next week, all the strawberry plugs had arrived and required fast planting to ensure their health. SoSA volunteers returned to the farm to help plant the crop.

Though Hurricane Irma created unforeseen challenges for farmers in Florida, SoSA was well placed to help, with its incredible corps of volunteers, and offered timely assistance so that farms can get back on track and ready for a future glean.

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