Many home gardeners donate surplus produce from their gardens to local food banks to feed the hungry. Barbara Eiswerth has taken the concept of food donation to a whole new level. She heads a local nonprofit group that locates, harvests and distributes food that would otherwise go to waste. Her efforts are alleviating hunger among Tucson's poor and are also educating people about the wealth of free fresh foods growing right under their noses.
The idea of collecting food that's going to waste is one that Barbara has entertained since she was a child. "I grew up in Pennsylvania, where neighbors would pay me to collect fallen apples from their trees so they wouldn't be run over by the lawnmower," she says. Barbara made cider from the fallen apples and smartly turned around and sold the cider to the same neighbors. "I wish I still had that entrepreneurial spirit," she says. Now Barbara's main motivation is feeding the hungry.
In graduate school at the University of Arizona, Barbara was working toward a Ph.D. in Arid Lands Resource Sciences. While at school, she helped some elderly neighbors harvest the extra fruit from their trees. She then got neighbors together and had them exchange a variety of fruit. "It is such a simple concept," says Barbara. "Harvest food that is already growing in your community and share it with others." Fruit trees are commonly used as landscape plants in Tucson. "Tucson is loaded with citrus, fig, pomegranate and other fruit trees," she says. Much of the fruit goes to waste and then is carted off to the landfill. "By finding out where the fruit trees and gardens are located in a given neighborhood, I figured we could approach the owners about donating extras or harvesting it ourselves," she says.
In 2002, Barbara put her idea to the test in her Jefferson Park neighborhood. Using the Geographic Information System (GIS) expertise she had developed while working at the U.S. Geological Survey, Arizona Remote Sensing Center, Barbara set out to map the food resources in her community. She was awarded a grant from the city to hire teenagers to comb the neighborhood in search of fruit trees and gardens. They entered the data using the GIS system. "We canvassed the neighborhood on foot, bike, Rollerblade and skateboard," says Barbara. They left brochures explaining their program and contacted residents with food resources to see if they needed help harvesting. They mapped almost 300 fruit trees in 162 backyards. "In four months we harvested hundreds of pounds of produce. We set up a sort of farmer's market to trade and give it all away," she says. "We exchanged a lot of fruits and vegetables, and also processed some of the fruits to make juices, marmalades, soups and other foods," says Barbara. The interest and response was overwhelmingly positive.
Inspired by her initial success, Barbara formed the Iskashitaa Refugee Harvesting Network in 2003 to integrate refugee volunteers into the gleaning system, and expand to the idea into other Tucson neighborhoods. "Refugees have a strong agricultural background, but have been marginalized in our society," she says. Getting refugees involved in the gleaning helped them acclimate to their new country, and also provided them with affordable, fresh, healthy and sometimes familiar foods to their diets. To date, Barbara has involved more than 700 refugees in the Iskashitaa program.
Barbara has also turned her attention to education, linking refugee populations, local families and schools together to glean fruits and vegetables and share them with one another. She wants to teach kids and adults about the amount of wasted food, and expose their palates to unusual fruits growing locally such as loquats, calamondin citrus, pomegranates and dates. She started the Fun with Fruits program to help kids and adults identify exotic fruits and teach them how to use the fruits in the kitchen.
"Gleaning is an attractive idea to adults and kids," she says. Mapping food resources and gleaning produce combines many valuable skills with issues such as technology, food security, hunger education, reducing landfill waste and helping marginalized populations. "It's a natural fit for schools and volunteer organizations to get involved," she says.
Barbara hopes to expand the program beyond residential backyards and gardens into the local farming community. She started by visiting farms the day after Halloween to harvest excess pumpkins. "There are thousands of pounds of pumpkins and squash that just go to waste after Halloween," she says. By contacting farmers and collecting their extra produce, Barbara has increased both the amount and the variety of food donated to local food shelves, churches and soup kitchens in Tucson. More than 20 types of fruits and vegetables are now available, for a total of 30,000 pounds of produce a year. Her volunteers even went door to door to donate extra produce to residents of low-income housing.
One of the largest hydroponic tomato growers in the world is located just outside of Tucson, and they recently signed on to support Barbara's efforts by donating excess tomatoes. "They even recruited and hired some of the refugee volunteers to work in the tomato greenhouses," she says.
Since one can only eat so many fresh fruits and vegetables before they rot, Barbara has also partnered with a local Methodist church to rent a food processing facility to make fruit juices, canned fruits and vegetables and other processed foods from the excess gleanings.
"There is so much food grown in the U.S. that goes to waste. I want people to realize the bounty we have around us, open their eyes to new and unusual local foods and help feed neighbors that are hungry," she says.
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