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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Annie Eberhardt is the third AmeriCorps Vista for the Spokane Edible Tree Projectin 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.
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.
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.”
Sharah Truett is an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving at the WSU Extension office in Port Angeles, WA.
VISTA member Sharah Truett interviewed several gleaning volunteers during the 2018 harvest season to find out what personally motivated them to glean. Here is what they had to say:
“It doesn’t take much to end up in a predicament,” acknowledged gleaner Cindy Schrader. She’s speaking from experience from a brief period in her life when she didn’t have enough food to eat. “I was a single mom living in Nebraska, living paycheck to paycheck. My co-workers came to my rescue…they bailed me out with sacks of groceries when I was going through some really rough times.”
Now, as a gleaning volunteer, Cindy has the ability to help others get healthy food on their table.
Karlena Brailey, a long time gleaner with the program, participates in order to “personally have a connection to the food system and to give her daughter a connection to the land.” During a time in her life when her cost of living exceeded her income, she says gleaning “was like a gift…” She loved feeling like she “didn’t have to ration seasonal produce”. Nowadays Karlena donates a great deal of gleaned produce to the food banks because “it benefits community health in a significant way.”
Another enthusiastic supporter of the gleaning program is Forks resident Jody Schroeder, who even organized a gleaning event on his own this year. When asked what motivates him, he says, ” As a young father in the military, I had, on occasion, needed to go visit my local food bank for help through the government commodities program. If I can help another father with food for his kids, I will. There is nothing worse, I feel, than seeing food go to waste in someone’s garden when it could benefit some family with hungry children.”
Over and over again, the gleaners whom Sharah interviewed spoke of the importance of giving back. They remembered times in their own lives when they were food insecure and friends, family, and even strangers stepped in to help them out. Now they glean in order to bring healthy food to others who are struggling.
Jody Schroeder is now the president of a local food bank and loves seeing those shelves stocked with local produce. He says, “If people have extra food from their gardens, by all means, DONATE IT! If you can’t pick it, call the gleaners. Don’t let it rot on the vine when you can help feed the hungry…Nobody should go hungry.”