It all started on an ordinary day at her local grocery store. Sharon Parks was in the produce section, and noticed a clerk discarding some overripe, yet perfectly edible bananas. For some reason, this commonplace sight struck a chord. Having been raised on a farm, Sharon had grown and preserved food all her life, and was sensitive to not wasting good produce. Why, she wondered, couldn't this food be collected and made available to those in need?
Since she is an active member of the Rotary Club of Klamath County, Sharon decided to approach the club president about acting on this idea. She got a green light, and in 2003, Rotary First Harvest of Oregon was born as a 100th anniversary project of her local Rotary club.
Sharon's first task was to recruit and coordinate a network of trucks and drivers that would collect produce from supermarkets and restaurants, and distribute it to local food banks. She also arranged for local truck farmers to call Rotary First Harvest when they have surplus produce, or produce that's not good enough for commercial sale. That food now gets picked up and delivered to local food banks.
"Rotary is all about creating partnerships with other organizations," says Sharon. She also cultivated a partnership with the Oregon State University Extension Service and Klamath County Master Gardeners. The groups worked together to revitalize an abandoned apple orchard. "Rotary raised the funds to buy the products needed to fertilize and spray the orchard. Master Gardener volunteers did the work," she says. The first autumn, they harvested more than 10,000 pounds of apples from this previously unproductive orchard, and donated them to the local food shelf
"We learned that the local Master Gardeners also had a demonstration garden that needed help. We raised funds to clear and expand the cultivated land, then tilled and planted a half-acre garden," says Sharon. "Not only did we partner with the Extension Service and other Rotary clubs in the area, we also invited at-risk youth through the Sheriff's Department and some non-profit groups to provide some of the labor in the garden," she says.
Although the growing season in Klamath Falls is only about 80 days, that garden produced 1,500 pounds of tomatoes, sweet corn, eggplant, summer squash, winter squash, beans, carrots, beets, cabbage and collards. In 2005, Rotary First Harvest doubled the amount of food grown and donated to the Klamath Falls/Lake County Food Bank.
For Sharon, growing food for the food bank wasn't enough. She's also passionate about education. "In 2004, we wrote a Rotary grant to create the Klamath Youth Harvest project," she says. With this grant, Sharon was able to connect at-risk kids from the Citizens for Safe Schools program with Master Gardeners, OSU Extension educators, Rotarians and other interested citizens. "The kids learned entrepreneurial skills by growing and marketing produce. They learned life skills, such as cooperation and teamwork, and practical skills, such as cooking and healthy eating habits," she says. She also got other Rotarians directly involved by creating an Adopt-a-Garden Week where Rotarians sign up to volunteer in the garden.
Sharon's Rotary First Harvest Project is flourishing, and she is now expanding beyond Klamath Falls. In the nearby Rogue Valley, she has helped six Rotary clubs create a one-acre food bank garden. She has also begun collecting and distributing food from local truck farmers, as well as meat from local animal auctions.
The Rotary First Harvest project has become so successful, that they now have a full-time director. "We want to expand the program state-wide and just couldn't do it with volunteers," she says.
Even with a new Executive Director, Sharon stays extremely busy. "I'm a caregiver by nature," she says. "I'm a retired banker who used to care for people's financial security. Now I care for their food security," she says. Sharon continues to speak at other Rotary clubs and line up potential partners for the program. There's no question her efforts have made an impact. "When we started, Oregon was the most food-insecure state in the nation. The USDA defines food-insecurity as having limited or uncertain availability of enough nutritionally adequate and safe foods to live a healthy lifestyle. Now Oregon is ranked 43rd," she says. I have to believe we're making a difference alleviating hunger here in Oregon," says Sharon.
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