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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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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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CSAs Provide Additional Sources of Fresh Produce

29.06.2018 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Food Bank, Harvest Against Hunger, National Site

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 few years ago, Food for Others implemented a new choice program for recipients of emergency food. Rather than giving clients a pre-packed box, they now allow them to “shop” for foods of their choice through a sectioned-off area of the warehouse. Depending on the family size, clients get to pick a predetermined number of items based off of groups of the food pyramid. Since the previous VISTA began, the produce section has been overflowing with an abundance of fresh and healthy treats. Last week, huge bundles of leafy chard lined the top shelf, while delicacies like fennel and garlic scapes sat below. This week, summer squash, Pattypan, and green and yellow zucchini were a popular favorite. The best part? Almost all of it came from a local farm.

 

Fresh summer squash, zucchini, and pattypan

 

This summer, Food for Others began an official partnership with Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, Virginia. Waterpenny will be providing 19 weeks of CSA shares to clients. This initiative began in mid-June and will continue through the fall. A CSA or community shared agriculture, is a way for members of the community to support local farms by pledging money for a share of the farm, and receiving fresh produce in return. Through an online campaign, Food for Others and Waterpenny Farm raised $5,823– enough for 15 shares for clients. The new initiative has not been without its struggles. Periodically, clients will see items on the produce shelf that may be unfamiliar to them, or that they may not know how to cook. Because of this, they might choose to skip the produce section entirely.

 

Innovative ways to get produce off the shelf

 

This is where the food demonstrations come in. A few weeks ago, VISTA Grace Plihal cooked kale chips and had the clients sample them. By the end of the day, all the locally grown kale had flown off the shelf. Zucchini bread is up next week, and it promises to be a hit with kids. Additionally, trained “shopper” volunteers will give clients suggestions on new and innovative ways to use the produce, such as bacon-wrapped garlic scapes and stuffed pattypan squash. Through the partnership with Waterpenny, Food For Others hopes that clients will choose to experiment with local fruits and vegetables they may have never seen before. And maybe someday down the line, they’ll be moved to plant their own garden, full of kale, chard, and garlic scapes.

 

Sauteed chard from a share

 

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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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