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MEET YOUR MEAT: WASHINGTON MEAT UP CONFERENCE AND THE ROLE OF FOOD ACCESS IN NICHE MEAT PRODUCTION

04.09.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Clallam County, Harvest VISTA, Washington Site, WSU Extension Office

Harvest Against Hunger VISTA Benji Astrachan serves at the WSU Clallam County Extension in Port Angeles, WA. Building off of the highly successful VISTA-founded Clallam Gleaners program, Benji is in the first year of research and development of a glean processing program that will capture excess gleaned produce to process into shelf-stable items. By donating these processed items back to the food banks, food waste can be diverted into delicious food products, food banks can cut disposal costs and save valuable storage space and community members can learn new food preservation skills while working to increase access to local and healthy foods. Benji is also preparing to launch a community meal program to teach cooking skills and increase access to healthy meals while coordinating with the Hot Foods Recovery Program to save prepared foods from landfills. Through these projects, Benji and the WSU Extension seek to educate and empower the local community through increasing knowledge and access, while reducing food insecurity and waste in Clallam County.

Last week, Benji had the opportunity to attend a brand new conference called the Washington Meat Up, being hosted for the first time by the WSU Food Systems Program. This conference is based off the successful Cascadia Grains conference model and seeks to become a new interface for niche meat producers, processors, regulators, researchers, restauranteurs, and everyone else involved in the local meat industry to come together and discuss successes and challenges in their work.

After a casual 4am start from Port Angeles – the joys of Peninsula living! – Benji arrived with a local farmer and meat producer at the Seattle Culinary Institute, and immediately set off for the morning field trip. With a group of actors from across the industry, he visited Jubilee Farm, Falling Rivers Meats and Carnation Farm in the Carnation Valley to learn about some local meat operations and get an in-depth look into the ins and outs of sustainable and small-scale meat production.

The afternoon consisted of a series of break-out workshops and larger group discussions in which folks from every side of the niche meats industry mixed and discussed their roles, successes, and challenges within their work. It was an excellent opportunity for industry regulators and producers – people commonly pitted against each other by messy bureaucracy and sticky regulation laws – to get together and find common ground in their desire for local meat production. Of the different challenges, what clearly rose to the top was the need for increased access to USDA and WSDA-certified slaughter and cut-and-wrap operations for small-scale producers, who often end up having to spend incredible amounts of time and money traveling across the state to use these services. Other major concerns included the lack of consumer education on the difference between industrial and local meat. With a rising vegan movement and calls for giving up meat consumption to save the environment, the discussion is missing the nuance and differentiation necessary to identify local and small-scale meat producers – who provide essential ecosystem services, follow human practices and take good care of their animals and land – from industrial factory-farm meat producers – who generally fail on those same accounts. Although not directly involved in the meat industry, Benji was able to offer an important food access perspective to the discussion. While many niche meat producers struggle to educate their consumers on why their products need to and should cost more than industrial meat, the topic of how to get good local meat to those who genuinely can’t afford it has also largely been untouched. Benji had some excellent discussions with these meat producers and processors about the realities of eating on a SNAP budget and the difficulties of justifying more expensive meat purchases when faced with an unwavering financial bottom line.

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Sowing the Seeds of Self-Sufficiency at the Food Bank

22.05.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Clallam County, Harvest Against Hunger, Washington Site, WSU Extension Office

Harvest Against Hunger VISTA Benji Astrachan serves at the WSU Clallam County Extension in Port Angeles, WA. In coordination with the successful VISTA-founded Gleaning program at the Extension, Benji will be developing Community Food Projects including processing the gleaned produce to donate shelf-stable items to food banks, launching a community meal to teach cooking skills and increase access to healthy meals, and coordinating with the Hot Food Recovery program to divert surplus hot food from landfills to hungry community members. Through these projects, Benji and the WSU Extension seek to educate and empower the local community through increasing knowledge and access and reducing food insecurity and food waste in Clallam County.

Last week, Harvest Against Hunger VISTA Benji Astrachan and WSU Extension Gleaning Coordinator (and former HAH VISTA!) Sharah Truett drove two tightly-packed cars to the Sequim Food Bank one town east to give out plant starts to visitors coming for groceries. For the past month, Sharah and another Extension employee had been coaxing seedlings of all varieties through the incremental and inconsistent weather of the Olympic Peninsula, greenhouses and backyards overflowing with the bright green sprouts and first leaves of cherry tomatoes, arugula, kale, strawberries, raspberries, garlic, cilantro, and countless other plants. Now, on another unusually warm spring morning, they set up in the parking lot as the food bank visitors passed through, handing out plant starts to anyone interested.

Most of the people passing were thrilled to pick up a tomato plant, some lettuce, a strawberry start. Many were already growing a small amount of food at home and we’re excited to share their knowledge, learn some new tips, and add another couple plants to their backyard plots. While many people may assume that those who visit the food bank wouldn’t have the resources to garden, in a rural town like Sequim most folks have access to at least some amount of land on their property, and for many, growing food has been a constant part of their life – much more so than the food insecurity that brought them to the food bank that day. Stories were shared of growing up on farms, childhoods spent picking these same vegetables fresh out of the garden, and above all, the visitors shared a respect for the calming, healing and meditative powers of getting one’s hands into the dirt and the care that goes into raising the tiny seedlings into delicious and healthy food for the dinner table.

This experience of handing out plant starts was a good reminder that people visiting the food bank are by no means a monolith – they come from every possible background and could never be defined by their need for help getting groceries that week. As a society, we tend to ignore the intricacies of survival and poverty, and especially the reality that so many face, that of living on the edge every day. Instead, we draw straight lines to determine who falls below or above the poverty rate, without regard to the many folks who are near crisis most of the time, one urgent car repair or an unexpectedly high utilities bill away from not knowing how they’ll get their next meal.

While a few tomato plants in the garden isn’t quite the solution to systemic hunger, giving people back their agency is a pretty big deal, and giving someone the means to produce their own food is and always has been an important part of self-sufficiency. Giving people the capacity to grow food for themselves is empowering on a fundamental level, and that came across in the pride and joy the Sequim Food Bank visitors shared in their stories of home gardening, in the pictures they kept on their phones from last year’s harvest. It also came across in the rearview mirror on the drive home, where all that was left in the back of the car were some empty boxes and smudges of potting soil – and the knowledge that another hundred or so people would have the joy of picking part of their meals from their own yards later this season.

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Welcome Benji!

27.02.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Clallam County, Harvest Against Hunger, Washington Site, WSU Extension Office

Benji Astrachan is a recent graduate from McGill University in Montreal where he studied International Development and World Religions. During his studies, and since graduating, he has shifted his focus toward food systems and community development in the face of food insecurity. He served through AmeriCorps as a youth crew leader on a food access project in Vermont, developing his interest in the intersectio n of education, community empowerment and sustainable and equitable food production. He is now serving on the other side of the country as a Harvest Against Hunger VISTA with the WSU Clallam County Extension in Port Angeles, Washington, and is excited to explore the beautiful Pacific Northwest while getting to know and serve a new community.

Harvest Against Hunger VISTA Benji Astrachan serves with the WSU Clallam County Extension as a Community Food Project Coordinator. He will be expanding on the accomplishments of former VISTA members who have established a local gleaning program that brings in over 70,000 lbs of fresh produce annually. In conjunction with the other food waste prevention and nutrition education programs run by the Extension, the Community Food Project will focus on processing gleaned produce to make nutritional food accessible to community members beyond the harvest season, as well as introducing a community meal and cooking education program with local partners to alleviate food insecurity.

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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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