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AmeriCorps VISTA Tag

Engaging Refugee Gardeners in the Fight for Food Justice

20.02.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Harvest Against Hunger, IRC, South King County, Washington Site

Harvest Against Hunger Americorps VISTA Hailey Baker serves at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a large international nonprofit organization that responds to the world’s humanitarian crises and helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and gain control of their future. Specifically, Hailey serves in the IRC Seattle’s New Roots program, which works with refugee, immigrant, and other vulnerable communities in South King County to improve food access and community wellness. New Roots offers families and individuals space to grow their own food at four different community gardens, runs community programs (English classes, yoga, garden work parties), provides technical assistance to farmers, and gives newly-arrived refugees a grocery store orientation to get them situated in the U.S. food system.

At the IRC, equity and justice live at the forefront of our work, as we resettle refugees, asylees, and other immigrants in their new homes in the U.S. It is extremely important to empower clients with the tools and knowledge they need to succeed in a foreign land with its own local issues and inequities. On February 13th, despite the snow and the cold, three members of the New Roots team, including Hailey, took five Congolese and Kenyan refugee gardeners down to Portland for a conference titled “Farming While Black: Uprooting Racism, Seeding Poverty”. The conference brought together several POC farmers from the PNW (Portland and Seattle specifically) for an evening of education and discussion about black farming in this region and in a larger cultural context. The featured speaker was Amani Olugbala of Soul Fire Farm, a BIPOC-centered community farm in New York committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system. In addition, the event included a panel of three POC farmers: Rohn Amegatcher of Log Hollow Farms in Chehalis, WA, Edward “Eddie” Benote Hill of Seattle, and Melony Edwards of Willowood Farm on Whidbey Island, WA.

With the aid of interpretation, our farmers were able to listen to the speaker and panelists as they unpacked the issues of “food apartheid”, farming land stolen from Native American tribes, and the history of black oppression in the United States. The speakers were honest and brave in sharing their experiences as black farmers with a majority white audience, and they urged us to think about the land we farm and live on and learn about the people who farmed and lived on it before us. It was a truly powerful and heavy event, a crash-course in U.S. food justice for our refugee gardeners. After the main event, all of the POC farmers and attendees gathered in a separate room to meet and share space with like-minded people, which our gardeners joined.

The ultimate goal of bringing the gardeners to the conference was to root them in the issues of food justice in the U.S. and orient them to how black identity differs in this country as opposed to their own. Some concepts were difficult to convey through translation, but if nothing else the gardeners enjoyed traveling and being in a new environment. With this experience fresh in all of our minds, the New Roots team hopes to put more programming in place to support POC gardeners in the upcoming garden season.

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Surviving the ‘Snowpocalypse’

14.02.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Food Bank, Harvest Against Hunger, Washington Site, Whidbey Island

Harvest Against Hunger Capacity VISTA Brandi Blais serves at Good Cheer Food Bank and Thrift Stores, an innovative shopping model food bank located in Langley, WA. Supported by a combination of in-kind donations and revenue from its two thrift stores, Good Cheer provides food to 800+ families on South Whidbey Island each month. The gleaning program is an essential part of Good Cheer’s grocery rescue efforts, adding locally sourced fresh produce to the food bank during the harvest season. Brandi’s mission at Good Cheer is to expand and build on the existing gleaning program, creating a sustainable, volunteer-led program that will continue to bring fresh produce to those who need it for years to come.

In a place known for mild winters and an idyllic climate, a real snowstorm can be a treat…at first. Snowball fights! Sledding! Everything shuts down and we all get to stay home and drink cocoa!

Then reality sets in – the roads are icy, propane runs out and can’t be refilled if delivery trucks can’t make the rounds, grocery stores can’t restock if trucks can’t deliver. Often only the main roads get plowed or sanded, public transit stops running, and many people don’t have vehicles that can handle icy road conditions. Even people who do have AWD or 4WD sometimes forget that they still have to compensate for the conditions. Chains or snow tires aren’t always enough, and the best equipped vehicle in the world won’t save you from the poor driving of other people on the road.

It’s easy to tell people they should stock up on supplies when they know a storm is coming, but that’s not always feasible when funds are short. Winter is often a time of ‘heat or eat’ choices for folks with limited incomes, and this is often exacerbated by the sub-freezing temperatures and power outages that come with winter storms. The most recent storm cycle to hit the PNW served to highlight the difficulties faced by vulnerable members of the community; seniors and those facing food insecurity in particular.

With road conditions preventing most of the staff from getting to the Good Cheer Food Bank on Whidbey Island, there were several days of snow closures or shortened hours over the first two weeks of February. This affected many people in the community who depend on the food bank; even if Good Cheer was open, if families couldn’t make it due to road conditions they faced the prospect of going hungry.

Fortunately, as the winter storm cycle drug on, quickly wearing out its welcome, the community of South Whidbey banded together. Local Facebook pages served as means to update road conditions and check on neighbors. Offers of help were made daily, along with offers of rides for those stuck or without 4WD vehicles, deliveries of supplies, and warnings about particularly bad areas. Several local good samaritans regularly offered to deliver supplies to folks who were stranded. An inspiring example of community spirit was a post on a local page asking for help in getting food to a family that was snowbound and running low – multiple people responded with offers to deliver food, asking what was needed and where to bring it.

As we face the real evidence of climate change and its effects on not just our environment but our food supply, honest conversations and practical measures to prepare for the ‘new normal’ will be key to adapting. There is still hope for slowing down the effects, but it seems unrealistic to believe that we can avoid the looming drastic changes altogether. But if the latest ‘Snowpocalypse’ taught us anything, it is that we are stronger together.

“My message to you all is of hope, courage and confidence. Let us mobilize all our resources in a systematic and organized way and tackle the grave issues that confront us with grim determination and discipline worthy of a great nation.”  Muhammad Ali Jinnah

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A New Vision for Urban Abundance

06.02.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Harvest Against Hunger, SW WA, Urban Abundance, Washington Site

Harvest Against Hunger VISTA Allie Van Nostran serves with Urban Abundance, a program of Slow Food Southwest Washington in Vancouver. Slow Food International seeks to rescue local food traditions and promote “clean, fair food for all.” To this end, Urban Abundance engages volunteers in harvest and stewardship of community and backyard orchards across Clark County. The fresh fruit is rescued from the waste stream and shared with hungry neighbors who need it most.

It’s a time of great transition for Urban Abundance! A Year 2 VISTA has been hired and will start within the month, bringing new ideas and energy. After a recent strategic planning session, the UA committee of the Slow Food Board has developed an exciting new vision for community-driven food security in Clark County.

Urban Abundance has been helping to maintain and harvest fruit trees in Clark County since 2010. In the early years, Urban Abundance occasionally offered activities geared toward local food production in general (eg edible landscaping and seed ball workshops) in addition to fruit tree gleaning. These activities were well-received and well-attended, but eventually dropped off as the organization focus narrowed on fruit tree care and harvest.

In early January, the Urban Abundance committee gathered to review the Strategic Plan for the organization. They took a hard look at the actual needs of the community and recognized that, despite the efforts of the emergency food system, lack of access to fresh, whole foods (beyond just fruit) remains widespread. They also acknowledged that, while there are other local groups that promote food security, teach home-growing or even fruit tree care, none seem to focus on gleaning, foraging, or public edible landscaping as avenues to create universal access.

The committee agreed that Urban Abundance should expand its scope beyond fruit again, embracing and promoting all kinds of local, non-commercial food production. Considering long-term sustainability, they determined that, rather than seeking to grow and sustain the organization itself indefinitely, the main goal of Urban Abundance should be to promote successful models and build community leadership for a decentralized, self-perpetuating free food economy.

The revised mission of Urban Abundance is “to engage neighbors in the creation, maintenance, and harvest of edible landscapes that are accessible to all.” This means working with individuals, families and public or private entities to:
– teach neighbors how to cultivate and harvest edible plants and how to forage edible plants in the landscape
– establish more public edible landscapes (eg front yard foraging gardens, community gardens/food forests, edible plants in parks or public rights-of-way, etc.)
– build relationships and processes to facilitate harvesting and sharing surplus produce wherever it may be found 

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Empowering Customers: Importance of Produce at Food Banks

30.01.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Harvest Against Hunger, Vashon Maury Island Community Food Bank, Washington Site

Harvest Against Hunger AmeriCorps VISTA Cassidy Berlin serves as program coordinator between the Vashon Maury Island Community Food Bank and the Food Access Partnership. FAP is a program of the Vashon Island Growers Association, and strives to make local food more accessible to community members while fairly compensating farmers. This collaboration draws surplus island harvests to the food bank to combat economic obstacles that prevent fresh, local produce from being a staple in 1 in 7 island homes.

The New Year is a typically hectic time for food banks across the country as they annually update client files. Unusual circumstances caused by the partial government shutdown combined with this “re-upping” process helped Vashon Maury Community Food Bank realize that several questions not included in the client database needed answers. Harvest for Vashon VISTA Cassidy Berlin wrote and administered three weekly surveys to food bank customers to identify common dietary restrictions, local food insecurity and produce consumption rates, and participation in federal food assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC.

98-200 responses were garnered for each survey, which represents 23-48% of January food bank customers. Of the surveyed customers, over 75% worried that food would run out before more could be bought in the last year, and over half involuntarily ate less than what they needed. The most surprising statistic: 91% of surveyed customers said they would eat more fruits and veggies if price were not a concern. Hunger has yet to be eradicated on Vashon, but that hasn’t stopped food insecure families from wanting access to fresh and healthy produce.

The partial government shutdown ended the day after the SNAP/WIC survey was completed; 50% of surveyed customers were recipients of federal food assistance programs, and are likely facing eight weeks between the distribution of benefits, which on average cover less than 50% of their monthly grocery bill. Food distribution centers across the nation began to anticipate or experience a surge in demand due to furloughed employees and SNAP/WIC recipients. During a conference call with Food Lifeline, a nonprofit that distributes food to Washington food banks, one participant stated that their food bank was going to prepare by using money allotted for fresh produce to purchase shelf stable, calorically dense foods instead.

Anti-hunger institutions balance a delicate conundrum: do hunger prevention efforts stop at getting clients enough calories? Prioritizing a full belly over a balanced plate is par for the course among food insecure individuals. The Food Access Partnership believes no family should choose between eating healthily and eating enough, and that food equity is just as important as hunger prevention. This will be achieved when the local bounty of healthy, disease-preventing fruits and vegetables is fairly distributed to all islanders, regardless of income. January survey efforts confirm that food bank customers want more than to go without hunger, they also want access to healthy options for themselves and their families. In light of the gratitude millions of Americans are feeling at the end of the government shutdown, local Harvest for Hunger efforts illuminate how grateful islanders are for the growing season ahead.

Photo: Volunteers reap a late summer harvest in the food bank garden, PC Emma Cassidy

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Family Ties Stay Strong with Giving

23.01.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Colorado, Food Bank, Harvest Against Hunger, National Site

Harvest Against Hunger VISTA Malik Salsberry serves at Community Food Share, a nonprofit located in Louisville, CO. This nonprofit is one of the five Feeding America food banks that help to serve all of Colorado and Wyoming, with Community Food Share’s focus being Boulder and Broomfield counties. This nonprofit makes its distinction from other food banks in the area by having a major focus on fresh produce and protein, with goals of 75% being fresh produce, fruits and vegetables, and protein sources, like fresh milk, eggs, beans, and meat. Community Food Share supports other area food pantries as well as their own programs which serve different populations like children and the elderly.

While snow continues to fall in the foothills of Boulder, CO, that hasn’t slowed down any of the planning that’s going into next seasons farms and gardens, especially regarding plans to host new gleaning opportunities. As the planning stage intensifies, plans for hosting gleans has turned into a family tradition for a long time Boulder family; the Munson’s.

This family tradition of two-fold giving, donating fresh produce to food banks and pantries while hosting gleaning opportunities for local nonprofits, was first started by the co-owners’ father, Robert Munson. Although Bob was an electrical engineer by trade and built a long and successful career, his childhood of working on his family’s farm in Illinois grew into a new found love for raising crops.

Bob started Munson Farms in 1976 with the help of his wife and children, cultivating not only his passion for farming but also his passion for giving back to the community, as he planted extra crops just for these donation efforts. Bob and his sons, Mike and Chris, would continue growth by building their own farm stands to help bring in additional income to the farm. Bob continued to give annually to Community Food Share and other local nonprofits whose missions involved helping their fellow neighbor, giving over one million pounds of produce to Community Food Share since 1982 and providing a variety of gleans to community members.

Like father like son, even building his own career in electrical engineering, Mike has made it a personal mission to continue with his father’s work on the farm and giving back to Community Food Share and other local nonprofits.

The partnership between Munson Farms and Community Food Share continues and plans are being made for donations and gleaning opportunities this season, including donations of their famous sweet corn, squash, pumpkins, peas, and other produce. Mike is excited to continue providing the same opportunities that his father did; providing nutritious produce for community members in need and gleaning opportunities for volunteers.

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Reclaiming Fruit as a Partnership

17.01.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Gleaning, Harvest Against Hunger, Spokane, Washington Site

Spokane Edible Tree Project (SETP), a site of Harvest Against Hunger, mobilizes volunteers to glean fruit from backyard trees and commercial orchards that would otherwise go to waste. Annie Eberhardt is serving as the third AmeriCorps VISTA for SETP, and worked to continue a partnership with a brewery by providing damaged fruit for a brew to benefit SETP.

Although winter is afoot in Spokane, there is still a little slice of the summer harvest fermenting here in town. At Bellwether Brewing Company, a local brewery in the heart of the city, there is a special Spokane Edible Tree Project concoction working to transform into a tasty beverage.

All summer, Annie Eberhardt, the third Harvest Against Hunger VISTA for SETP, has been mobilizing volunteers to glean fruit from going to waste in Spokane County. The majority of the fruit collected is impeccable in quality, easily able to be donated to food pantries and impoverished communities.

However, every now and again, there would be a backyard tree with hail damaged fruit, or even a crop that was just a little too overripe to reasonably donate due to shelf life storage. Annie made it her mission to give this perfectly good fruit a home whenever possible. Luckily, SETP has an existing partnership with Bellwether Brewing Company.

The partnership started in 2017, when SETP gave Bellwether hail damaged plums to concoct plum beer. For the life of the batch, SETP received $1 per pint of the brew served to the public.

The partnership continued this harvest season with more than just plums. This year, there was a peck of slightly too-ripe peaches, a bunch of slightly damaged cherries, and even some organic apples with nicks and dings. Using the changing fruits as a creative opportunity, Bellwether gladly accepted the fruit donation and is continuing to make a partner brew with SETP. The cherry, peach, honey-barley beer with dried apples for added flavor is to be released in the Spring of 2019. Again, $1 from each pint served will be donated to SETP for the life of the batch.          

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Welcome, Hailey!

08.01.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Harvest Against Hunger, IRC, Washington Site

Hailey Baker was born in New Jersey and moved five times within Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee before heading off to college in Arizona in 2014. She graduated from Arizona State University in May 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability and has continued her exploration of the world ever since. While she was in school she worked as an intern for a local farmers market and volunteered for a humanitarian organization at the Arizona-Mexico border, which set her up perfectly for her current AmeriCorps role. Before coming to Washington to serve as a Harvest Against Hunger VISTA she was working as a cellar hand at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in California, which solidified her interest in agriculture and working with diverse groups of people.

Hailey is serving in SeaTac, Washington as a Year 1 Harvest Against Hunger VISTA with the International Rescue Committee, an international refugee resettlement organization that supports newly-arrived refugees, asylees, and special immigrants get oriented to their new lives in the United States. Hailey works with the New Roots program, which connects refugees and other IRC clients to land to grow culturally-relevant food while educating about gardening and healthy eating. As a Year 1 VISTA, Hailey is helping New Roots build new processes from scratch, and her projects so far have included creating a Food Access Guide for IRC staff to use with food-insecure clients, coordinating and piloting grocery store tours for new arrivals, and creating data collection tools for the New Roots emergency food pantry.

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As senior hunger rises, community members in Southern Georgia step-up to fight back

19.12.2018 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Georgia, Harvest Against Hunger, National Site

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 lean fresh produce, reduce food waste and alleviate hunger throughout the state.

Food insecurity in Georgia is a pervasive issue, but among that population is an even more venerable demographic – older adults 60 and up. A 2016 report ranks Georgia 9th in the nation for the prevalence of older adults facing food insecurity; currently numbered at 300,000 people. This group of individuals has a higher risk of health issues, lower standard of living, and high medication nonadherence when in a state of food insecurity and is projected to increase to 17% by 2032.

The Senior Hunger Regional Coalition is facilitated by Southern Georgia Area Agency on Aging in partnership with Society of St. Andrew, the host site for Americorp Vista, Taylor Rotsted, and seeks to improve the health and wellness of hungry seniors. The coalition, which now consists of wellness coordinators, farmers, meals on wheels representatives and many others with a dedication to improving the state of hungry older adults, met in a former warehouse turned community center that was supposedly used for dances back in the day. Reasonably, the building was structured to house large, lively groups. The coalition was well-suited to their surroundings as all 33+ cavorted and networked. This first meeting saw no shortage of passion or diversity in the participants which is the best recipe for a strong coalition that will create actionable change.

Taylor was tasked with facilitating the break out groups. The main focus areas were Food Access, Food Waste and Reclamations, Meeting the needs of the community, and Impact of Senior Hunger on Health. In all the meeting and events Taylor has assisted in – she has never had a break-out session that had to be cut short. Emails were exchanged within focus groups in order to keep the dialogue going. Although what gathered people in that refurbished dance hall is a terrible reality in our society, the group left with a sense of hope and empowerment through the new partnerships formed at the First Southern Regional Senior Hunger Coalition Meeting.

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The Unexpected Benefits of Gleaning

19.12.2018 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Clallam County, Gleaning, Harvest Against Hunger, Volunteering, Washington Site, WSU Extension Office

Sharah Truett is an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving at the WSU Extension office in Port Angeles, WA.

The WSU Extension Gleaning Program links homeowners who have extra produce in their yard with volunteers who will pick it and take it to those in need. It’s a kind of fruit and vegetable classified ad service: “Desperately seeking plums,” and “Have fruit, will donate.”

More than 200 homeowners have signed up on the glean site list. Collectively, they donate thousands of pounds of produce each year. But what do they get in return? Gleaning Coordinator Sharah Truett believes, quite a lot.

The homeowners enrolled in the program are often in their 80’s and 90’s and no longer able to pick produce themselves due to age or disability. They call the WSU Extension Office anxious about all the fruit going to waste on their trees, but also just to chat. Many homeowners are fairly housebound and enjoy the company of the gleaner and the connection to the outside community. They request the same gleaning volunteer year after year because they are excited about seeing a friendly face. Sometimes gleaners bring gifts: a small bouquet, or produce to exchange from their own yard. Sometimes they sit down with the homeowner over a cup of tea and shared pictures of grandchildren. Often the gleaners will pick a box of fruit to leave for the homeowner if the homeowner can’t pick their own. 

The benefits of a program like this go far beyond what can be measured with a produce scale.  There is an additional harvest of neighborliness, companionship, and a sense of purpose. One homeowner battling terminal cancer seemed more concerned about his cherries going to waste. Gleaners assured him that they would take a load of cherries to the Boys and Girls Club, and the homeowner seemed visibly relieved. “Make sure they come and pick next summer too,” he implored his wife from his armchair. 

Many benefits of the gleaning program cannot be weighed or quantified or entered into an excel sheet, but they are still important:  Like the quiet smile of a dying gardener, knowing that he is helping others.

 

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Welcome Cassidy, Food Equity on Vashon Island

12.12.2018 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Food Bank, Harvest Against Hunger, Volunteering, Washington Site

Harvest Against Hunger AmeriCorps VISTA Cassidy Berlin serves as a coordinator between the Vashon Maury Island Community Food Bank and the Food Access Partnership. FAP is a program of the Vashon Island Growers Association and strives to make local food more accessible to community members while fairly compensating farmers. The goal of this collaboration is to connect surplus island harvests with consumers in order to combat the economic obstacles that historically prevent fresh, local produce from being a staple in food-insecure communities.

New AmeriCorps VISTA member Cassidy Berlin is from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She attended Northern Michigan University and graduated in 2017 with a degree in Environmental Studies and Sustainability, which explored the ways in which geography and human systems influence each other.  She dedicated her undergraduate thesis to the politicization of the environmental movement and found inspiration in the founding principles of the National Park Service. Since graduating she has worked as a seasonal park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Acadia National Parks, and also interned seasonally with a New York-based nonprofit. She credits an outstanding network of educators, peers, and coworkers with encouraging her to pursue these adventurous opportunities. She is driven and excited to help develop an equitable food system in the Vashon community.

One short ferry ride away from Seattle’s bustling downtown district brings locals and visitors alike to Vashon Island, the largest island in the Puget Sound. The island sits halfway between West Seattle and the Kitsap Peninsula and is home to over 10,000 permanent residents. The proximity to Seattle and Tacoma is part of Vashon’s appeal; the community maintains an easygoing, small-town charm while being able to partake in the innumerable resources and services usually reserved to urban areas.

The local population is economically diverse. With no designated low-income housing available, islanders face a housing crisis. There’s a saying on Vashon, though, that represents the spirit and resilience of this small community: the island provides. Dozens of farms and hundreds of personal gardens dot the island’s 37 mi². Like many Washington communities, Vashon is home to a popular farmer’s market, one with produce prices that are historically inaccessible to low-income households. The Food Access Partnership and the food bank are trying to change that.

 

A portion of the produce selection available during Thanksgiving week distribution.

The previous VISTA service member created a volunteer-based gleaning effort, which collected surplus harvests from island farms and gardens and donated them to the food bank and successfully developed sustainable relationships in the local growing community. The second year of this collaboration will continue facilitating local gleaning efforts and will further develop the Grow A Row program, which encourages island gardeners to designate a row of their harvest to the food bank. Empowering community customers during distribution hours will be made possible through a volunteer-run stand with education materials on alternative payment options for local food. Finally, this year will provide the opportunity to increase year-round access to healthy foods through food preservation efforts, such as canning and dehydrating.

 

In what is expected to be a fruitful year of community engagement, the VISTA collaboration will increase access to locally grown abundance by, as one FAP member said, “serving the unserved in our community.”

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