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The Importance of Food Sovereignty: Earth, Self, and Community

18.04.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Harvest Against Hunger, SW WA, Urban Abundance, Washington Site

Harvest Against Hunger VISTA Lynsey Horne serves as program coordinator of Urban Abundance, a program of Slow Food SW WA in Vancouver, WA. Slow Food SW WA is an international organization that advocates for good, clean, fair food for all, and their program Urban Abundance’s mission is to engage neighbors in the maintenance, harvest, and creation of edible landscapes that are accessible to everyone. Urban Abundance is currently partnered with five fruit tree orchards in the Vancouver area to coordinate the seasonal maintenance, harvest, and donation of the fruit to the food bank, and holds workshops and other events throughout the year to engage community members in becoming engineers of their own food sovereignty.

Food sovereignty: it’s something you don’t know you have until it’s gone (or vice versa). In Clark County, 13% of residents and 19% of children are classified as “food insecure,” meaning they experience a lack of access to “enough food for an active and healthy life” (USDA). Food sovereignty, on the other hand, is “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (Food Secure Canada). The industrial food system does not currently have much focus on culturally appropriate and ecologically sustainable food production methods. As such, people are more disconnected from where their food comes than ever before, and literal tons of the food that are being produced is going to waste every day. Since 2010, Urban Abundance has been attempting to address some of these issues locally by encouraging the stewardship of Vancouver’s urban orchards, promoting individual food sovereignty, and donating fresh, healthy food to those who are in need.

Sometimes, food sovereignty involves getting a little dirty. Urban Abundance has been kicking off the year with work parties in Foley Community Orchard- a spring pruning workshop in partnership with Vancouver Urban Forestry, and a sheet-mulching event to smother weeds and amend the soil. These maintenance events in the off-seasons nourish the connection to the ecosystems that provide this abundance for us. The healthier these orchards are come harvest time ensures that the freshest, local fruit that is possible is donated to those in need. Fruit trees are very important to Vancouver’s history as well; with Fort Vancouver being an early trading hub in the Pacific Northwest, the community orchards represent early settlers’ success at cultivating a rich local agricultural system that can hopefully be sustained indefinitely.

By improving access to the local abundance in Vancouver, Urban Abundance hopes to contribute to a healthier society by making it easier for food insecure individuals to make healthy choices & take control of their own food sovereignty.

Looking forward, a workshop series that focuses on the wide range of topics involved in food sovereignty will be held throughout this year: sustainable gardening, composting, seed saving, orchard care, and more. The first workshop of the year, Promoting Pollinators with Mason Bee Homes is coming up on May 4 with an expert coming to speak on the importance of pollinators and do a demonstration on bee box building, the results of which will be installed with mason bees in an orchard.

All these events, whether they are educational or more physical in nature, provide a great opportunity to learn, build community, and connect people in the area to a source of local food and sustainable methods for home cultivation, hopefully paving the way for a more food sovereign community.

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Broadening the Scope

11.04.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Harvest Against Hunger, King County Farmer's Share initiative, Rotary First Harvest, Washington Site

Harvest Against Hunger Americorps VISTA Gayle Lautenschlager serves at Rotary First Harvest on the King County Farmers Share Program. By developing direct purchasing agreements between farmers and food banks, the program aims to increase access to healthy fresh foods in high need populations.

As the farmers and food banks in King County gear up for the upcoming growing season, King County Farmer’s Share VISTA, Gayle Lautenschlager, saw an opportunity to expand her program in a new direction. During a Transportation Round Table for Food Rescue, Gayle met Chef Tom French, the Director of Food & Nutrition Services at Mary’s Place. At Mary’s Place all meals are provided to the women, children, and families who stay with one of their nine shelters. The meals for the shelters are cooked at the main kitchen under Chef Tom’s supervision. Based on the initial conversation with Chef Tom, Gayle and Rotary First Harvest Executive Director, David Bobanick, decided to visit the main Cooking facilities of Mary’s Place in Burien. Chef Tom provided a tour and discussed some of the challenges of producing large volumes of food in a relatively small facility.

After the tour, they also sat down to discuss the King County Farmer’s Share Program and how the two agencies can collaborate. Chef Tom explained that they currently purchase from a wholesale distributor and while he prefers local produce, he has not yet formed any working relationships with local growers. Chef Tom also explained the challenge of incorporating local produce into his program where ingredients may not be able to be identified as readily as they are before they are processed or incorporated into cooking. A possible solution was proposed where a weekly meal highlighting local produce as well as an information and recipe sheet were suggested as ways to increase awareness about local foods that are often available at farmer’s markets.

As a follow up, a meeting between Chef Tom and a King County grower was arranged. The grower and Chef Tom were excited to talk about the wide array of produce available that can be incorporated into meals at Mary’s Place. They also discussed collaborating on other possible pilot projects. An additional meeting was arranged to talk about the possibility of planting produce specifically for Mary’s Place.

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Exploring Food Security Partners on and off the Peninsula

03.04.2019 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.

Critical to the success of community food projects anywhere is the development of strong partnerships –with community members, with parallel community organizations and efforts, and with larger forces doing similar work that can support and reinforce what goes on at the ground level.

“Onions ready for redistribution at the Food Lifeline warehouse”

Last week, VISTA member Benji Astrachan traveled to Seattle to meet with Food Lifeline, a branch of the national Feeding America organization. With fellow Extension SNAP Education coordinator Karlena Brailey, they toured the impressive warehouse south of the downtown and learned about the scale of Food Lifeline’s work in aggregating and redistributing food to local food banks. They also sat down to discuss an exciting new program from Food Lifeline that aims to both procure and distribute food locally. That means, buying directly from farmers and then ensuring the fresh and healthy produce stays in the area to feed those community members. In Clallam County, many of the farms are operating at a smaller scale than those of east Washington or anywhere off the Peninsula, but this just reinforces the importance of supporting those who are growing our food.

What’s exciting about this kind of local procurement plan is the way it can incentivize smaller-scale farmers to connect with food relief efforts near them. While most farmers are already supporting local food security work – through straight-forward donations of produce, hosting gleaning groups to harvest the seconds, or plant-a-row programs that designate areas of crops for donation – it is important to acknowledge that they do this because they value good food and access to it, and receive mostly just the benefit of goodwill and appreciation. By compensating farmers for the produce they allocate to food banks or other food relief organizations, we can ensure that they are able to maintain the business end of their operations, and begin to build long-term relationships that offer a stable market and opportunities to scale up donations and impacts in the long-term. For a Food Lifeline partner like the Sequim Food Bank, this is significant in the way it reinforces positive and mutually-beneficial relationships with local farmers, ultimately leading to more delicious and healthy fresh produce for the community members who most need but are least able to access it.

The work of building healthy food systems is manifold in the variety of actors, whether they are farmers, food bank managers, hungry families, AmeriCorps members, SNAP educator, farmer’s market coordinator, neighborhood volunteers – the list goes on! By building out these relationships and supporting the work of one another, truly holistic and sustainable food systems are created.

And for a bonus, Benji got to visit the nearby community gardens project that day called Marra Farms, which is one of just two historical agricultural land sites in Seattle that is still being used to grow food –another awesome example of the many shapes and forms that food security and access to good food takes!

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Welcome, Lynsey!

21.03.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Harvest Against Hunger, SW WA, Urban Abundance, Washington Site

Lynsey Renee Horne is an Auburn University graduate with a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies, emphases on natural resource economics, ecology, and sustainability. Throughout college, as she learned more about some major environmental justice and policy issues that society is dealing with today, she set her sights on doing a term of service after earning her BS and before she attends graduate school. Long passionate about environmental issues and devastated to see the state of food systems the way they currently exist, she was very excited to see an AmeriCorps position that focuses on alleviating both food waste and food insecurity in one fell swoop.

Lynsey is serving with Harvest Against Hunger at Urban Abundance (a program of Slow Food SW WA) in Vancouver, Washington. Since 2010, UA has focused on caring for and harvesting from several community orchards in the Vancouver area, and harvested 20,000 pounds of fresh produce to donate to Clark County Food Bank last year! UA’s mission is to engage neighbors in the maintenance, harvest, and creation of edible landscapes that are accessible to everyone, to support clean, fair food for all .

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The Community Educator Program Supports Self-Sufficiency for the Palouse Community

21.03.2019 in AmeriCorps VISTA, Community Action Center, Harvest Against Hunger, Palouse Tables Project, Washington Site

Harvest Against Hunger Capacity Awareness VISTA Robyn Glessner serves at the Community Action Center in Pullman, which has been an endless proponent and advocate for ending hunger through sustainable food production and community collaboration throughout the Palouse for 30 years. One of their moto’s is, “solving local needs with local solutions”, which perfectly frames my desire to work in an area that provides relief with sustainable solutions at its center. The office also provides energy assistance, housing, and weatherization services, as well as a food pantry, community garden, and computers for WorkSource applicants. In tandem with the desire to connect local food insecure communities with the food producers in the region, the CAC and the first-year VISTA created the Palouse Tables Project. Within the work of this project, the regional community had expressed a desire for educational opportunities open to the public focused on self-sufficiency, in the form of preparing and preserving their own foods and gardening. Along these lines, the Palouse Tables Project will continue by providing opportunities for education courses and materials by adapting curriculum and coursework and then training local volunteers to teach these skills to the public.

Pappy’s Pantry

Week after week, month after month, “Pappy’s Pantry” dry pinto beans, stays on the shelf of the commodities section at the Community Action Center. The Food Pantry receives around one hundred clients each week, Pappy’s Beans are always out but they aren’t always well received. One of the faithful volunteers at the Community Action Center, Andrew Vaughan, sees this occurrence each week and wanted to do something to affect how people receive these less than exciting dried beans, in order to move the product and highlight this healthier option. We all know the choice is clear among clients of a food pantry when they are given the option between dried beans and “Chef Boyardee”.

Andrew, “Andy” among friends at the CAC, jumped on the opportunity to teach a bean demo as part of the Community Educator program lead by AmeriCorps VISTA, Robyn Glessner. So, on a cold and snowy day in February, Andy and Robyn set up crock pots and spice blends to start cooking the soaked “Pappy’s” pinto beans. The community kitchen was set up to greet participants the following day at 11am when the Food Pantry opened up for clients. Samples were made, recipes printed, and multiple handouts were provided to inform curious community members about the different ways beans can be soaked, cooked, mashed, refried, stewed with meat, or tied up into a sock to fashion a microwaveable heating pad! As time passed that day, a few participants trickled through the community kitchen, curious to see where the source of the cumin and onion infusion that was wafting throughout the building had originated. Unfortunately, the weather got the best of the turnout of people for both the food pantry that day and secondly, the bean demo.

There was both discouragement but also hope left over at the end of the day that Wednesday in February. Both Robyn and Andy were able to identify areas that the program could improve on for the next demo, but there were some unexpected “wins”. Volunteers and staff had come through to support the two during that day and there was unexpected and beneficial conversation being had about the community and their relationship to food. Our consensus came down to the fact that though the few community members that came through that day may have been less than anticipated, it still proved that the purpose and goals were being met. Even if a Community Educator is there to teach only one person about cooking nutritious food for themselves, that knowledge is still granted the power to live on and can be passed through that one person to another person, and so on. This is the definition of capacity building, and it is also important for the educators to know that being available to our community as educators is not as much about informing and collecting “numbers” of participants as it is about simply being available to those who do show up to learn, whenever and wherever that may be.

And now, on to the next educator challenge… lima beans.

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Creating Community Partnerships

13.03.2019 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.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 stale in 1 in 7 island homes.

All across Vashon Island, farmers and gardeners alike are preparing for the upcoming season. With longer days and snow-free forecasts ahead, local growers are starting seed, repairing damaged beds and greenhouses, and are reviewing lessons gleaned from the previous season. Harvest for Vashon will soon begin promoting participation in a Grow a Row program, and AmeriCorps VISTA Cassidy Berlin recently toured two local farms who are preparing to support the effort.


Soon-to-sprout beet starts at Pacific Crest

Pacific Crest Farm serves as a natural extension of the Montessori School classrooms. A true farm in its own right, Pacific Crest is the largest farm on Vashon Island and supplies the local community with organic produce. Jen Keller manages the operation and committed to donating hundreds of started tomato seeds to Harvest for Vashon, which will distribute them to local gardeners eager to donate the yields to the food bank. While speaking with VISTA Cassidy Berlin, Keller also considered the logistics of growing a row of food to donate in Pacific Crest’s sizable greenhouse.

Michelle Crawford has been running Pacific Potager, her south-end island growing operation, for close to three decades. Her primary business is selling starts at her farmstand, and she will seed over 800 varieties this Spring. Beds overflowing with cover crops fill her four large greenhouses. In addition to donating several flats of starts to the food bank’s garden, Crawford has offered to donate unsold starts to Harvest for Vashon, which will be given freely to food bank clients with growing instructions.

Collaborating with local businesses provides Harvest for Vashon the opportunity to have a greater impact on the community. As Winter transitions into Spring, islanders feverishly anticipate the return of locally grown produce and chilly morning gatherings at the market. Partnerships with Pacific Crest and Pacific Potager are an exciting opportunity that hint at more community generosity to come.

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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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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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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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