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Harvest of hope: Valley farms, gleaners, volunteers come together to fight hunger
There’s nothing quite like a vegetable freshly picked from the farm.
So says Benjamin Rasmus, a Rotary Club member and sometime harvester himself, who joined a half-dozen fellow Rotarians on an overcast day in September to pick beans on Carnation’s Oxbow Farm.
But these veggies aren’t for his plate. Rasmus hefts a boxful of green beans that are slated, today, for the Hopelink delivery truck and, eventually, the dinner plates of low income Valley residents.
Rasmus, who is program director for the Rotary Club’s First Harvest program, was among a group of gleaners—volunteers who pick seasonal crops at Valley farms to help fight hunger.
“A lot of times, people who come out and glean have never been on a farm,” Rasmus says, “let alone an organic farm in a beautiful valley like this.
“You get someone out here, and they start to become more aware of where their food comes from. What a pea straight from the vine tastes like,” he adds. “That can be an eye-opening experience.”
Sno-Valley Harvest, a gleaning program of Rotary First Harvest and Hopelink, partners with farms and local food banks to bring fresh produce to families that need it.
Since its inception last December, more than 70 Sno-Valley Harvest gleaners have gathered more than 6,500 pounds of produce—1,300 alone from Oxbow Farms.
All that effort makes a difference, says Lisa Harper, a gleaning coordinator with Hopelink and an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer. For low income families, access to fresh fruits and veggies remains a big challenge.
“The food we’ve brought in has been very well-received,” Harper said. “No one has said ‘no.’ All the food banks are very excited about bringing in more fresh vegetables.”
Gleaned produce goes to nine different food banks in the area, including the Mount Si Food Bank, Snoqualmie Tribe Food Bank, the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank, the Preston food bank, Sno-Valley Senior Center in Carnation, and Hopelink’s five food banks, which includes one in Carnation.
“We’re looking to create channels to make sure the food we bring in gets to people,” Harper says.
These aren’t throw-away crops. The beans that gleaners picked are no different than anything you might find at the store.
Local farms have realized that gleaning is an opportunity to prioritize, and are offering an increasing variety of produce to volunteers.
Sno-Valley Harvest recently visited a farm where the old beans were still good, but a newer crop was coming on strong.
“It was more worth their time to harvest the new crop, rather than pick through the beans that were right there on the edge,” Harper said. “They need to put their guys on the best crop.”
That gives the gleaners a chance to pick from the old crop while it’s still good.
In its first gleaning visit last December, the group picked beets. Their second trip, in March, was for overwintered greens.
“Coming into this, and talking to farmers, people thought it was (all) end-of-season crops—squash, potatoes, carrots,” Harper said. “So I started making suggestions.”
When she found a farmer willing to share spinach, she told the other farmers. Pretty soon, spinach and lots of other varieties of produce were on the menu at local food banks.
Oxbow, in particular, has been a big supporter of gleaning effort from the beginning. During the peak season, Sno-Valley Harvest came out twice each month.
“They’re just really on board,” Harper says.
“It’s amazing to think about the food going to people that need it,” said Adam McCurdy, Oxbow’s Farm Production Manager, said in an interview.
Oxbow’s efforts are about striking a balance between making a living and helping others. Giving food is a part of his vision as a farmer and a “huge part of our social mission.”
Harper is the point of contact for both gleaners and farmers.
“When a farmer identifies a gleaning opportunity, he calls me,” she says. Harper learns what kind of produce is available and when—usually, she has a three-to-five-day window to get volunteers in and out. She e-mails volunteers and gets a team ready.
“They know when it is and what we’ll be harvesting,” Harper says.
Gleaners come from many walks of life throughout the Puget Sound region. Since everyone may not bring personal experience in the farm or garden, Sno-Valley Harvest provides on-the-spot training for all crops—important, Harper says, because of the variety, as picking peas is different than picking onions or broccoli.
The Rotary Club is excited to get people involved in fighting hunger in their communities, says Rasmus.
“Both the tangibles and the intangibles are pretty huge,” he said. “Leveraging our Rotary connections, we’re able to do a great deal.”
Not only can Rotarians give their time, he says, they can also give financially to support the gleaning program.
“Volunteer work can be contagious,” Rasmus said. “Maybe they’ll go back and tell the club. Next time, there’s a dozen.”
Be a gleaner
You don’t need farm experience to pick vegetables and help others. Big harvest opportunities are happening this fall. Get hands-on training.
To learn more about Sno-Valley Harvest, call local coordinator Lisa Harper at (206-579-6886 or 850 528 2543, e-mail to email@example.com, go to www.hope-link.org, or visit on Facebook, www.facebook.com/snovalleyharvest.