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VISTA Tag

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, Gayle!

06.03.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Harvest Against Hunger, King County Farmer's Share initiative, Rotary First Harvest, Washington Site

VISTA member Gayle Lautenschlager was raised in Bethlehem, Connecticut. She attended Western Connecticut State University and graduated in 2017 with a degree in Social Work. Building upon her previous experience volunteering, Gayle completed two internships while in school. The first internship was with the Council of Churches Hunger Outreach Network working on a smart shelving system for their member food banks.

A second year long internship was completed with the New Haven Food Policy Council and the City of New Haven under the new Food Policy Director. While in both internships Gayle was able to work alongside Americorps VISTAs and learned about the program and opportunities to further her work in the hunger alleviation field.

Gayle is excited to continue the work of previous VISTAs and to apply the lessons learned in the Harvest Against Hunger Farm to Food Pantry Program to the King County Farmer’s Share initiative. Gayle is inspired by the educators and mentors from her time at her university and internship sites as well as by the collaboration and support from her time with the VISTAs she encountered along the way.

The primary mission of Rotary First Harvest is to alleviate hunger and reduce food waste with surplus produce. Rotary First Harvest utilizes volunteers and trucks to glean transport fresh food from farms.  King Country Farmer’s Share is an initiative under Rotary First Harvest’s Harvest against Hunger program. Using the Farm to Food Pantry initiative as a model, the King County Farmer’s Share will help increase access to fresh produce through purchasing contracts with local farms.

Working with three agencies in King County, the VISTA will facilitate working relationships with small scale local farms. Through these direct purchasing agreements access to fresh produce will improve in local food insecure households. As per the Farm to Food Pantry initiative, these pantry and farm relationships have been shown to result in additional donations made by the farm to the food pantry.

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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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Gleaning as Magic and Empowerment

02.01.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Gleaning, Harvest Against Hunger, Spokane, Volunteering, Washington Site

Annie Eberhardt is the third AmeriCorps Vista for the Spokane Edible Tree Project in Spokane, Washington, a branch of Harvest Against Hunger. SETP focuses on mobilizing volunteers to glean fruit from trees that would otherwise go to waste, sending it out to those in need.

When it comes to gleaning season, there is only one thing that can truly be relied on: unexpected circumstances. From the hustle and bustle of coordinating with tree owners, farmers, and individual volunteers, there is no surefire formula for gleaning coordination.

To help alleviate the challenges of this, and further work toward gaining a good formula, HAH AmeriCorps VISTA Annie Eberhardt adopted a new gleaning schedule model for Spokane Edible Tree Project to help with the recruitment of a consistent volunteer base. Starting in July 2018, SETP began conducting weekly scheduled gleans in an effort to provide a dependable time frame for volunteers and tree owners alike. Thus, Thursday Night Gleans and Saturday Morning Gleans were born. There was also space for a third floater glean during the work week to include employee volunteer groups who wished to help during work hours.

Even with this new model, there was no perfect formula. Week to week, gleaning sites ranged from large commercial orchards to small backyard trees, which meant that marketing and promotion for each of the gleans had to be adjusted accordingly. It was not desirable to have 15 volunteers show up to glean one backyard tree, nor was it desirable to have 5 volunteers show up to glean a large cherry orchard. This meant that gleans had to occasionally be rescheduled or cancelled to adjust to the varying scope of gleaning sites – every week was an adventure.

One such unexpected scheduling change occurred during the coordination of the very last Saturday Morning Glean of the 2018 season. The last Saturday Morning Glean for SETP is a tale of cancellation, pest management issues, frantic coordination, magic, and heartwarming conclusions.

It was mid-October. The last weeks were upon SETP, and there was an energetic rush for the VISTA to gather and unite the community to harvest the last apples of the season. Most of the gleans were scheduled, saved for the last October glean.

Like magic, an orchard, just north of Spokane, was ripe and ready for a large group to glean during the last weekend. It opened up just in time for the VISTA to recruit a large group of youth volunteers who were available to glean on the Sunday of October 28th. With the recruitment of a small group of regular SETP volunteers to glean the day before, on the 27th, the gleaning formula was turning out to be just about as perfect as it could be.

Fast forward to a week later. The orchard owner reached out to the VISTA to inform SETP that the apples were wormy. Since the apple orchard had been gleaned by SETP many times before in previous years, the VISTA had not thought it necessary to arrange a tree scout. Since wormy apples would not be accepted by food banks, the VISTA was now put in a position to try to find a new orchard for the volunteer groups to glean. Again, the energetic rush was back, and the possibility of cancellation was in the air.

Again, the magic acted up. On October 23rd, five days before the gleans, three very synchronistic things happened: the original youth group suddenly had to cancel, a new apple orchard reached out to the VISTA in hopes of scheduling a glean, and a new volunteer group reached out to the VISTA in hopes of helping with a glean on Sunday. The formula was back on track, and the beginning of building new relationships was on the horizon.

The volunteer group who came to the farm to glean on Sunday, October 28th, was a group of women and children from a local shelter. The women were in recovery from drugs and alcohol, getting back on their feet with their families in a safe environment. Most of them had never seen an orchard before and were excited to get outside and be a part of the glean. As the VISTA spent time with them, it was learned that their shelter lived entirely on donated food. The original plan was to donate the gleaned apples to one of SETP’s other community distribution partners. However, upon learning of the circumstances, the VISTA decided to donate all the fruit to the women and children who gleaned them.

The women took the apples back to their home, all 442 pounds of them. They shared the apples with the residents, eating the fruit fresh, as well as making a big apple crisp to share with the shelter. It was heartwarming to see community members in need becoming empowered, taking action to feed their families and neighbors.
Sure, there is no perfect gleaning formula. There is no absolute way to provide certainty for how a gleaning event will go, or how a harvest season will be. During that weekend, the VISTA learned that unexpected circumstances are the perfect formula. It’s where the magic lives.  

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Welcome, Malik!

30.11.2018 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Food Bank, Gleaning, Harvest Against Hunger, National Site, Volunteering

Hello y’all,

I’m very excited to give some information on Community Food Share and the Garden Share Program that I will be coordinating this year. Community Food Share is a non-profit organization that looks to eliminate poverty in Boulder and Broomfield counties of Colorado, a problem that is faced by every 1 in 8 people here. With a major emphasis on fresh produce and protein, Community Food Share has been working with local food companies, private and public donors, and independent and corporate food volunteers since 1981 to help our neighbors in need. We also serve as one of the few national food banks that don’t charge our participants or food pantries for food, which is something we take great pride in. We do this while also managing to provide food, over 75% of which is fresh produce and protein including milk, beef, chicken, and eggs. Within Community Food Share is the Garden Share Program, which helps coordinate with local farmers, gardeners, and green-thumbers to help bring in fresh, locally grown produce. A major component of Garden Share is the gleaning program that happens, where volunteers come to a local garden or farm and help to pick the produce that may otherwise be thrown away or not bought at the store, or as we generally call them, “the seconds”. With this program in the past two years we have helped to save over 40,000 pounds in gleans alone, with another over 200,000 pounds coming from local farmer donations, and I can’t wait to build on those numbers!

Some background info about me: I’m a recent spring 2018 graduate from the University of Iowa with a degree in Enterprise Leadership and a minor in Psychology. The major areas of focus for my degree were entrepreneurial, social, and leadership studies paired with practical business skills and etiquette. My previous position before coming to Community Food Share was an apprentice with Grow: Johnson County, a non-profit, organic farm that harvests and donates all of the crops from about 4.5 acres to local area food missions, such as broccoli, onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, okra, and some 70 other crops. This past harvest season we donated over 40,000 pounds of organic produce to community partners in the Johnson County area to help distribute to our neighbors in need of good food. While working with Grow, I developed the strong belief that good food is a human right, and I full-heartedly believe that mantra and love supporting organizations and people pushing for that same right for all. Some passions and hobbies of mine include gardening, cooking, reading, writing, traveling, and being involved with almost anything outdoors.

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