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Virginia

Presentation is Key

15.05.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Food Bank, Food for Others, Harvest Against Hunger, National Site, Virginia

Maheyaar Barron is the Gleaning and Produce Recovery Coordinator at Food for Others, a food bank and pantry located in Fairfax, Virginia. The organization services the northern region of the state through a multitude of programs such as emergency food aid, weekend meals for elementary school children, neighborhood site deliveries, and community partner support. The gleaning program, which began in 2017 in partnership with Harvest Against Hunger, connects local growers to families in need, bringing in fresh produce directly from farms, farmers markets, and community gardens.

As the Farmers’ Markets season begins, the streets abound with wicker baskets, colorful displays of fruits and vegetables, and smiling faces. The uncharacteristically heavy rain has done little to dampen the excitement, and both farmers and shoppers gear up for the over twenty-two markets the region has to offer. A similar process begins over at Food for Others, where VISTA Maheyaar Barron and the rest of the team make place for the thousands of pounds of fresh produce soon to come through the warehouse doors. Space is cleared in the food banks walk-through Choice Section, the primary distribution point for the new gleanings.

The Farmers’ Market experience is one that is hard to replicate at the food bank. Limited funds mean that the picturesque wicker baskets are replaced with plastic or cardboard containers. Instead of sunshine, the fresh produce is framed with canned goods, grey flooring, and harsh, white lighting. The mood of shoppers also differs, as their presence in the space is out of necessity rather than choice.

Maheyaar has been trying to research and brainstorm ways to make the space more inviting, building on the work of his predecessors. Grace, last year’s VISTA, had added her own flair, marking the days produce on small chalkboard signs, including recipes and nutrition facts, etc. So what’s next? Luckily, Food for Others is moving forward with a long-awaited building project and will be constructing a whole new room for the Choice Section. With better lighting, temperature control, and display, the hope is to increase not only the volume of produce taken but also the number of shoppers moving through the space at one time. With all this in place, Maheyaar’s focus can shift to nutrition knowledge dissemination, making sure the shopper knows the what and why of what they are taking home.

Ambiance is essential in making the families feel comfortable, supported, and respected. It is also a way to incentivize healthy choices. Supermarkets spend large sums of time and money sprucing up their produce displays, and while their goals may be different, the strategies are the same. Learning from and reaching out to local stores may be the next step.

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Building True Accessibility

27.03.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Food Bank, Food for Others, Harvest Against Hunger, National Site, Virginia

Maheyaar Barron is the Gleaning and Produce Recovery Coordinator at Food for Others, a food bank and pantry located in Fairfax, Virginia. The organization services the northern region of the state through a multitude of programs such as emergency food aid, weekend meals for elementary school children, neighborhood site deliveries, and community partner support. The gleaning program, which began in 2017 in partnership with Harvest Against Hunger, connects local growers to families in need, bringing in fresh produce directly from farms, farmers markets, and community gardens.

As the Food for Others gleaning program enters its third year, summer fruits and vegetables have become commonplace at all levels of distribution. The 2018 season brought in over 43,000 pounds of produce, giving clients fresh and nutritious options to take home to their families. The donations are distributed through the choice section, where referrals can shop for their food, as well as through neighborhood site distribution. Using these methods, Food for Others is working to increase food equity within its service region.

 As the supply side of the equation is slowly improved, demand is still very complicated. Client preferences do not always align with available items, and some donations stay on the shelf, untouched. These inclinations are due to a variety of factors: Need for culturally appropriate food, lack of cooking skills or time to cook, nutrition education, the unfamiliarity of the produce, etc.

Efforts to provide more culturally relevant produce through the gleaning program are currently underway– the emphasis on community gardens. Belvedere Elementary School, which boasts multiple green spaces, has been looking for opportunities to further educate its students on social service. Using a produce preference survey conducted by the first VISTA, Amy Reagan, Belvedere will soon be growing high demand produce for the food bank. Local fifth grade girl scouts are taking similar measures by looking to cultivate a plot at their own school. As more and more gardens sign up to be a part of the Grow a Row program, Food for Others will be able to more optimally target its clients’ needs and decrease the amount of food left on the shelf.

To mitigate other factors preventing equal access to fresh produce, Food for Others is offering two eight week cooking courses in partnership with both a nearby low-income housing unit and the Virginia Extension office. The classes will be held at the housing unit, and will promote nutritious foods, cooking skills, food budgeting, and safe food handling. Through its connection with a local CSA, Waterpenny Farm, Food for Others will provide each attendee with a share of fresh produce. Recipes will center around the items in each weekly basket, with the intention of increasing participants’ knowledge of the different fruits and vegetables and how to prepare them. Upon completion of the course Virginia Extension will provide each member with an eighteen piece set of cooking pots, removing a high cost up-front barrier.

Access to healthy produce has many layers. Food for Others is attempting to balance meeting clients’ preferences with recognizing and combatting the systemic way in which marginalized communities have been primed to reject healthy options. This will require both time and a multifaceted approach.

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Welcome, Maheyaar!

13.03.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Harvest Against Hunger, National Site, Virginia

Maheyaar Barron is a recent graduate from Middlebury College that majored in Environmental Economics. His work experience following graduation includes food security research, hands-on food business experience, and translation, all in the greater DMV area. His work in this region continues as he begins his one year term with Food for Others in Fairfax, Virginia. Maheyaar will be serving as their third Harvest Against Hunger AmeriCorps VISTA, and he is excited to be promoting food equity within Northern Virginia.

Food for Others is both a food bank and pantry that has been servicing Northern Virginia since 1995. The organization runs a variety of programs from weekend lunches for in-need elementary school kids to emergency food aid under the USDA. In order to increase their communities access to fresh and healthy produce, Food for Other paired up with Harvest Against Hunger in 2018 to start its Gleaning Program, diverting thousands of pounds of potentially wasted produce from both farms and farmers markets. Now in its third year, the program is partnering with 9 farms and 23 farmers markets!

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