Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bastyr Alumna Connects Area Farms with Local Food Banks

Master’s nutrition graduate Lisa Harper is helping small to medium-sized farms harvest extra produce for communities in need.

Lisa Harper shows volunteers how to harvest lacinato kale.
Lisa Harper shows volunteers how to harvest lacinato kale.

Imagine how many bellies a ton of food could fill. Now imagine if that food were unable to reach the food system because it simply couldn’t be harvested on time.

Until this summer, that extra food could have gone to waste in the Snoqualmie Valley, a farm-rich area east of Bastyr University.

But through Sno-Valley Harvest, a new program based at Hopelink, Bastyr alumna Lisa Harper, MS (’10), has so far organized the harvest, collection and distribution of more than 6,507 pounds of organic, fresh produce that has ended up in area food banks instead of as waste.

“We always have a lot of extra produce, but we don’t have time to harvest it,” says Siri Erickson-Brown, who owns Local Roots Farm with her husband, Jason Salvo. “This is really a great program.”

On the morning of August 9, Harper organized a small group of volunteers to harvest some of Local Roots’ extra produce, which is also known as “gleaning.” Harper and Salvo showed volunteers which stalks of lacinato kale they should pick to allow the plant to continue producing, and they also picked out the turnips that were too large for selling at farmers markets.

“When a farmer harvests a plot of land, they take the prettiest of what’s there to sell at the market, but the remaining food is still just as tasty and nutritious,” Harper says. She organizes these gleaning events at seven small to mid-sized farms in the Snoqualmie Valley, but that number is growing.  

With help from Hopelink, a North and East King County social services provider with five food bank locations, the freshly picked produce is then delivered to 10 organizations that serve nearby low-income and elderly populations.

“One of the coolest aspects of this is how fresh the food is when it gets to people,” says Harper, who estimates that the food they glean is typically on its way to a family’s home within two to four days.

“Harvest Against Hunger” Taking the Fight Statewide

Harper started Sno-Valley Harvest through her yearlong position as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in mid-November, giving her time to interest volunteers and farms in participating before the harvest season began.  She belongs to a group of VISTAs in Washington state known as Harvest Against Hunger, a project developed and managed by Rotary First Harvest in Seattle.

“A lot of my work so far has been volunteer recruitment,” she says, which includes explaining the work and the need to individuals and groups around the community. So far, over 70 volunteers have contributed to harvesting and recruitment is always ongoing.

“Approaching farmers has been tricky because they’re so incredibly busy,” Harper says, adding that she’s met many of them through attending local tilth meetings, introducing herself to them at farmers markets, or even approaching them while they’re working on their farm.

“Most of the farmers are really on board with what we’re doing,” she adds. “They have worked really hard to produce this food and they really want to see it go to someone.

“It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Although her position is new, in the past three years Rotary First Harvest has established similar positions throughout the state, which allows Harper to focus on her specific area. “This year there’s 11 of us, all working to make connections between growers, food banks and volunteers,” Harper says.

When her position ends with the harvest season in November, Sno-Valley Harvest will continue —at first through other AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, with the goal that it becomes a permanent fixture and continues to provide food for those in need.

More Work Needed in Farm-to-Table Initiatives

Harper’s initial interest in working with food banks blossomed while she was studying at Bastyr. During a project in a class on communities and nutrition, she chose to develop a nutrition program for the homeless population in Seattle and King County.

“That was the first time I went to a food bank,” she said. “I was disappointed in the lack of variety that I saw there.

“Everywhere you turn in Seattle there’s an amazing variety of locally grown fresh food. Yet, a major food resource for low-income populations seemed almost absent in fresh veggies.”

Harper graduated in 2010 with a Master of Science in Nutrition with a focus on research, and she quickly discovered that a community-based approach to improving nutrition was her passion, which led her to AmeriCorps.

“I love this area and I love working with the farmers,” she says. When her service ends in November, she hopes to continue working on farm-to-table initiatives. 

“I love to hear about new programs that focus on getting fresh food to people,” Harper says. “My current job is evidence that there’s growing awareness for improving food resources, but there’s a lot more work to do.”

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