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From farm to food pantry

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Harvest Against Hunger rescues a staggering amount of produce from farm fields and fruit trees. But it never works alone.

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On a clear afternoon in late summer, a dozen volunteers meet Benji Astrachan at River Run Farm in Sequim, Washington, a small town set between the snowcapped peaks of Olympic National Park and the Salish Sea that connects to the Pacific. He hands out green-handled harvest knives and leads the group onto one of the 100-acre farm’s many fields alongside the Dungeness River. The land is still green with bush bean plants, though harvest crews have already come through. Today’s volunteer turnout includes a few newcomers, so Astrachan explains the task before them — unearth the left-behind beans that hide beneath the leaves. As they set to work, the scene resembles an unhurried Easter egg hunt.

Afterward, in a nearby cauliflower field, the group circles around as Astrachan demonstrates how to push the leaves back and run the knife underneath each cauliflower head to cut the stem. Next, he flips the vegetable over to finish trimming. “You want to remove any florets that appear buggy or rotting,” he says.

Benji Astrachan, a food access and recovery specialist, leads a weekly volunteer gleaning event at River Run Farm in Sequim, Washington.

It’s placid, steady work, but a race of sorts is playing out in slow motion. Each week, River Run Farm staff members tell Astrachan which beds have been recently harvested. Soon, the farm crew will come through with a tractor to turn those fields over to prepare to plant something new. Any beans or cauliflower — or Brussels sprouts, broccoli, lettuce, or chard — left unpicked would get mowed under along with the remaining stalks and leaves that enrich the soil for the next planting.

But Astrachan, a food access coordinator with a Washington State University agriculture extension office, and the volunteers are here to save as many of those vegetables as they can.

The faster the group works, the more produce it can rescue for nearby food banks. Sometimes Astrachan pleads for an extra half-hour before the tractor comes through, knowing how much a group can pick in a short time. During the late-summer peak of the Olympic Peninsula’s long growing season, his team might harvest over 1,000 pounds of food each week.

Astrachan’s work to improve Washington residents’ access to food began through a Seattle organization called Harvest Against Hunger. The nonprofit, a long-standing program of Rotary District 5030 in Greater Seattle, connects residents experiencing food insecurity with local produce that might otherwise go to waste. Since its founding more than 40 years ago, Harvest Against Hunger keeps finding additional ways to fulfill this mission. But its roots lie in gleaning — exactly what Astrachan and the volunteers do on their weekly farm visits.

Gleaning is the act of collecting the crops that remain in a field after harvest. The vegetables might include a misshapen cauliflower that’s perfectly good to eat, but not pretty enough to sell at a supermarket. Or the nutritious and flavorful broccoli shoots that remain after farmers harvest the heads. As produce prices fluctuate, it may not make sense for a farm to spend resources to pick, pack, and transport everything planted. Gleaning is a practice that’s been around since ancient times. Today, Harvest Against Hunger and other nonprofits across the country consider it a vital tool to feed people, providing a missing link between farms and food banks, and reducing food waste.

The nonprofit Feeding America estimates that in Washington state 1 in 11 residents, and 1 in 8 children, face hunger. Surveys by the University of Washington and Washington State University found that food insecurity rates in the state dramatically increased after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and remain especially high among residents of color and households with children.

Benji Astrachan’s experience in Harvest Against Hunger’s Harvest Vista program inspired him to start a gleaning program at River Run Farm that has rescued tons of produce.

Meanwhile, the sort of nutritious food that could help address these needs often sits untouched in farm fields after crews collect crops for sale. According to the nonprofit ReFed, the United States generated 78 million tons of food waste in 2022, or about one-third of its entire food supply. That includes more than 12 million tons of unharvested produce.

Led by its famed apple-growing industry, Washington’s agricultural sector turns out an abundance of produce, offering a powerful tool in fighting hunger, as long as efforts are made to connect the food with people who need it. Gleans led by Astrachan at River Run Farm, for instance, yield more than 15,000 pounds of food a year.

Astrachan arrived in Port Angeles, Washington, from his hometown in Maine in 2019 to begin a yearlong stint with Harvest Against Hunger’s Harvest Vista program, which embeds AmeriCorps members in food-system organizations. He was put to work at Washington State University’s Clallam County Extension office, where he originally had a different assignment.

Every fall, apples stack up at the county’s Port Angeles Food Bank. For part of the season, the facility was turning down this fresh fruit. Healthy, locally grown food was going to waste because the food bank had no way to preserve it by turning it into something like applesauce. Astrachan’s task: “Figure out what to do with all those dang apples.”

Eventually, the food bank moved into a larger facility with a processing kitchen, effectively resolving the issue Astrachan came to tackle. But along the way, he looked for other ways to meet community needs. He set up a public list of programs in Clallam County that distribute free food. He launched a program to set up Little Free Pantry boxes throughout the county, where people can give or take food. And he helped organize a weekly meal program in Port Angeles to fill a gap in community services.

The capacity Astrachan built demonstrated so much value, the WSU county extension office hired him after his Harvest Vista tenure came to an end.

The gleaning effort began soon after, a result of Astrachan signing up to work on River Run’s harvest crew on his own time. He saw all the produce in River Run’s fields — and knew the farm was too busy to put together its own recovery program. He saw possibility.

“At first it was just me harvesting stuff and chucking it into the back of my Subaru,” Astrachan says. He quickly realized the power of a more organized effort. “There’s almost bottomless amounts of food there.” Through the extension office, he set up a farm gleaning program, which he’s led since.

David Bobanick, executive director of Harvest Against Hunger and a member of the Rotary Club of Seattle, helps out at the farm.

Stories like Astrachan’s are a throughline of Harvest Against Hunger, says David Bobanick, executive director of the organization and a member of the Rotary Club of Seattle. Rather than create new infrastructure, Harvest Against Hunger aims to make and support connections that help its community partners wage their fight against hunger: “Our success looks like making them successful,” he says.

Harvest Against Hunger began in the early 1980s as a volunteer project among members of the Rotary Club of the University District of Seattle. Back then, the city was recovering from a major economic downturn; hunger was a common concern among residents. A club member named Norm Hillis realized all the food available for hunger relief at his church’s volunteer-led food pantry was either canned, boxed, or otherwise packaged. There was no fresh produce, a common challenge at food pantries and throughout urban and rural communities known as food deserts.

Ready to start a gleaning program in your community? Consider these steps:

  • Find donors at a farmers market or a community garden and persuade them to get involved. Or reach out to farmers directly during nonharvest months when they are less busy.
  • Find a food bank, pantry, or soup kitchen that has the capacity to accept fresh foods.
  • Recruit volunteers who can participate regularly and build relationships with the donors over time to help ensure the program’s success.
  • Prepare to glean. Obtain sturdy crates or other reusable containers to transport food, and ask donors their preferred method of collection. Respect the produce by handling it with care.
  • Set measurable goals and track progress over time. Keep records of activities to help make the program sustainable from one year to the next.
Adapted from a toolkit published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Hillis brought the issue to the club. It set up a few small projects but wanted to aim bigger. Another member, Mike Shanahan, was chief of the University of Washington Police Department at the time. He sent out an all-points bulletin over the teletype, asking sheriffs and police chiefs to check with local farmers who might have extra food.

It wasn’t a traditional use of the law enforcement broadcast system, but it worked. A call came in about 30,000 pounds of surplus onions, sitting at a farm in southeast Washington. The produce had cosmetic imperfections, so the farmer couldn’t sell it. A Rotarian who worked in paving supplied a dump truck that was delivering a haul in the area and otherwise would have returned to the city empty. Instead, it stopped at the farm, took on a truckload of the alliums, and transported them to a Seattle food distribution center.

This turn of events soon became an effective model, says Bobanick. Harvest Against Hunger works with farms and other agricultural operations — like packing houses and processors — to secure produce that might otherwise go to waste. Freight companies supply trucks that have extra space on their way to or from a delivery. These commercial vehicles can pick up produce for free, or at a small cost, and transport enormous loads directly to a food bank or other relief organization.

The arrangement addresses two interconnected problems: hunger and food waste. And with it, says Bobanick, Harvest Against Hunger doesn’t have to buy its own trucks or run its own warehouse. “We can be additive to what already exists,” he says.

Over the years, Harvest Against Hunger shared this model with Rotary clubs around the country. Because communities’ needs differ, the organization determined that the best way for clubs to build on its success was not by replicating the model in its entirety, but by applying parts of it to support existing hunger relief efforts in their areas. Clubs in Colorado and Louisiana adopted gleaning programs, for instance, and one in Florida focused on connecting transportation resources. Although Harvest Against Hunger has since scaled back its outreach activities, it regularly offers advice and technical assistance to Rotary members working on projects that address hunger and food waste.

Locally, Rotary members remain essential to the organization’s work, putting in as many as 6,000 volunteer hours each year, says Kaj Pedersen, governor of District 5030. They have driven to farms and orchards to glean produce and have packaged items at distribution centers to be delivered to food pantries. And their fundraising has helped set up projects like Elk Run Farm, southeast of Seattle, where a former golf course grows produce for about a dozen hunger relief programs.

Today, Harvest Against Hunger still helps move truckloads of apples, carrots, potatoes, and other produce through Washington. Even amid challenges like a shrinking amount of available trucking, the organization delivered roughly 1.5 million pounds of surplus food to hunger relief organizations in fiscal year 2022-23. But several other significant programs now augment this core work.

David Bobanick inspects a head of cauliflower gleaned at River Run Farm. Gleaning has been central to the work of Harvest Against Hunger since the 1980s, when it was founded by Rotary members in District 5030.

One of them is Harvest Vista, the program that brought Astrachan to Port Angeles. Every year, through a partnership with AmeriCorps, Harvest Against Hunger embeds up to 15 of the agency’s Vista (volunteers in service to America) members in organizations that support local food systems. The Harvest Vista program is set up to build capacity, rather than to simply provide extra sets of hands for collecting or distributing food. When the program started in 2009, many members organized gleaning activities, helping to build systems that remain instrumental to feeding people across Washington.

Since then, the role of Harvest Vista members has evolved based on need. A member working with the nonprofit City Fruit in Seattle might organize volunteers to harvest apples from backyard trees. Another member working at the Northeast Washington Hunger Coalition across the state might coordinate with small local growers to set up purchasing relationships for nearby food pantries.

Additionally, Harvest Against Hunger manages a program that offers grants of up to $5,000 to help food pantries purchase additional coolers, fix compressors, or upgrade equipment. After all, fresh produce can’t do much good if there’s nowhere to store it safely. “We knew of organizations that were turning down produce,” says Bobanick, because they didn’t have a cooler. In 2022-23, grants worth more than $225,000 helped 72 relief organizations increase their capacity and feed more people.

In the central Washington town of Leavenworth, the nonprofit Upper Valley Mend used grant funding to purchase a walk-in refrigerator to store food harvested through its gleaning program. A separate state Agriculture Department grant, which Harvest Against Hunger helped facilitate, paid for a refrigerated van. The ability to keep things cold for longer is imperative, says Bob Mark, Upper Valley Mend’s human services director. The gleaning operation is the only one he’s aware of in that part of the state. “We’re kind of the only show in town. And there’s so much produce.”

Then there’s the Farm to Community program: Harvest Against Hunger provides funds so that hunger relief organizations can buy food directly from small-scale local growers. This lets a pantry round out its donated food with purchases tailored to the community’s needs. The program involves partnerships with Seattle farmers markets, a local grocery chain, and a government agency focused on natural resource management in King County. “Intentionally finding a space for those partnerships really helps to think about food systems in a different way,” says Bobanick.

These programs give Harvest Against Hunger multiple entry points into Washington’s food systems. Or, as a farmer once put it to Bobanick, “You guys are like a benevolent octopus.”

Celia Thurman, a food program supervisor at Hopelink, talks with a patron at one of the nonprofit’s five Seattle-area food pantries. Grants from Harvest Against Hunger’s Farm to Community program help Hopelink provide people with locally grown produce.

In Shoreline, north of Seattle, shoppers line up outside Hopelink Market on a gray Tuesday morning, waiting for doors to open. Some people clutch backpacks or wheel suitcases to carry groceries home. The nonprofit Hopelink runs five food pantries, though like many similar organizations, it prefers the term “markets.” That choice is reflected in the space’s layout: Clients push blue shopping carts through aisles of boxes and cans. The dairy cooler holds cartons of eggs and milk.

“Our intent is that a child coming here with a parent can’t even tell the difference, that they’re not in a grocery store,” says Elena Lavrushin, Hopelink’s harvest program supervisor. Most of her work manifests at the long table that serves as Hopelink Market’s produce section.

Here, two neat rows of blue and gray plastic crates hold a vivid rainbow of vegetables: Green and yellow zucchini poke out from two containers. Potatoes, big and small, sit next to a box of hefty yellow onions. The crate of peppers is piled so high — with red, yellow, orange, even purple varieties — it nearly overflows. One shopper heaps yellow wax beans into a plastic bag. Another surveys a crate of robust greens, looking for the best bunch.

Lavrushin spends her entire workweek sourcing the contents of this produce table. She’s the current steward of a gleaning program originally set up by Harvest Vista members who had been placed at Hopelink. She also uses grants awarded through Harvest Against Hunger’s Farm to Community program to purchase local, organically grown produce to supplement the selection on the table. “I feel like Harvest Against Hunger is the reason I have a job,” she says.

The impeccable tomatoes from a nearby organic farm constitute a cash crop, she explains, their sales essential to keeping the farm running. A farm may not want to donate those tomatoes, but a grant allows Lavrushin to buy them for Hopelink’s clients to take home and enjoy. “Quality produce shouldn’t only be for the rich,” she says.

The grants also purchase produce that’s culturally relevant to the communities Hopelink serves. Heirloom Chimayo and poblano peppers help families of Latino heritage prepare familiar meals. Asian American customers appreciate green vegetables like perilla, bitter melon, and Chinese broccoli. Lavrushin makes sure she has beets for the Russian immigrants who shop here. Even modest purchases for the market, like garlic, help clients transform a cooked dish from pure sustenance into a form of pleasure. After all, says Lavrushin, “What’s a dish without garlic?”

Hopelink is just one example of that benevolent octopus at work — of how programs that Harvest Against Hunger built years ago can strengthen the food relief infrastructure, while newer grants and programs can target needs on a more granular level. Connective efforts like these are not always conspicuous; Bobanick acknowledges that people in the Seattle area are less likely to know about Harvest Against Hunger than about the organizations it works with. But for those who would not otherwise have access to the nutritious food it helps provide, its impact is clear in abundance.

This story originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

Rotary’s Food Plant Solutions Action Group is dedicated to ending malnutrition.