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Helping Make Tucson a Better Place 

From backyards to distribution centers, three local groups aim to eliminate food waste

In refugee camps like the one 31-year-old Koor Garang came from, access to fresh, nutritious food is in limited supply.

Standing in a Tucson backyard gleaning fruit from citrus trees the homeowner doesn't want, Garang looks down at his hand, holding a one-pound grapefruit he just plucked from a donor's tree.

"People go to the store to buy what they already have in their backyard," he says. "They don't even know that other people can use it."

Garang, who came to the United States 14 years ago from Kenya, recently graduated with a Bachelor's degree in public health from the UA on Friday, Dec. 19. The morning of his graduation, Garang joined Iskashitaa Refugee Network, a non-profit he interned with while in college, on this morning harvest.

The thought of hunger globally and in Tucson specifically becomes more troublesome when you consider the issue of food waste—an issue groups like Iskashitaa seek to alleviate if not eradicate.

That work begins during harvests that start at 9 a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays, when a group of volunteers meet at Iskashitaa Refugee Network headquarters off Grant Road. A caravan of folks from all over the world pile in cars with gloves and fruit pickers and empty crates and head to houses all throughout Tucson.

That's not such a bad plan of attack either, but when it comes to food waste, the facts are actually pretty disgusting.

The USDA estimates that in our country 133 billion pounds of food are thrown away each year at the retail and consumer level alone. That could equate to either 13 million African elephants or over 33 million Ford F-150 trucks, depending on whichever is easier for you to visualize. Honestly, though, it's difficult to imagine any one of those weights and it's just gross to think of it all as rotting, discarded food.

According to 2010 estimates, about 31 percent of the nation's food resources went uneaten, leaving the 49 million people in this country who are at risk of going hungry just kind of S.O.L. This is particularly worrisome in Arizona, which has a higher hunger rate at 17.8 percent than the national average, which is 15.9 percent.

However, several groups in Tucson are taking this "waste," which is usually still edible, fresh food, and redistributing it in creative ways. Whether that means picking unwanted fruit off neighborhood trees or collecting excess from markets and distributors, groups that are gleaning are trying to combat the extreme wastefulness of modern grocers and even single family dwellings.

Using volunteers and refugees in the community, Iskashitaa fields calls from local folks who have a range of fruiting trees and then set up appointments to come and take the unwanted, but still very usable produce off of donor hands. On one recent gleaning excursion, Iskashitaa harvesters gleaned over 2,300 pounds of fresh citrus from just three different homes in Tucson in one day.

Citrus is just part of the wide variety of produce the group saves. Everything from fig, pecans, prickly pear, mesquite pods, amaranth, plums, corn, tomatoes, and garlic finds use through the hands of Iskashitaa volunteers.

In 2003, Iskashitaa's founder and director Barbara Eiswerth recruited refugee students for a project that focused on identifying the locations of produce that was going to waste in the city, working to harvest and redistribute the produce wherever found. After organizing four youth mapping programs, Eiswerth received a grant from the United Way to begin regularly harvesting gleaning with refugees under the name Iskashitta, which is the Somali Bantu word for cooperatively working together.

Over 10 years later, Iskashitaa has served refugees from Afghanistan, Burma, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and Syria—just to name a few. Eiswerth says the refugees "run the gambit from a dentist whose credentials aren't valid in the U.S. to an illiterate grandma."

"We're trying to encourage participation and allow refugees to give back to community that's given them a new life," Eiswerth explains. "They want to contribute."

Eiswerth says that every year the group finds something new to glean, including, most recently, fresh goji berries, quince, carob, jojoba beans and edible pineapple guava flowers that "melt in your mouth like candy."

"Each year the diversity of what we harvest increases," she says. "We're trying to not just do the low-hanging fruit."

New types of produce for Eiswerth means discovering how to harvest it, preserve it, package it, and present it. Iskashitaa is known for making unique items like locally pressed olive oil made from olives gleaned at the UA or the thick, rich, and sweet date syrup made from the combined 600 pounds of gleaned dates donated by ASU and another 2,100 pounds gleaned by Iskashitaa volunteers. Eiswerth says the group also made vinegar from the dates—something she didn't know was possible before.

These unique, premade goods, along with other preserved items and some fresh produce, are sold by volunteers at Sunday's St. Philip's Farmers Market and Thursday's Santa Cruz Farmers Market at the Mercado San Agustin. However, Eiswerth points out that only 5 percent of produce gleaned from the volunteers and refugees goes to sell at farmers markets.

Eiswerth sees farmers markets as an opportunity to connect the community with her project and, more importantly, connect the refugees with the community, but nearly all of the produce gleaned goes right back to the refugees in town. That's why Eiswerth says it's important to learn what each of the populations she's serving is looking for.

"We try to reach out and find what's most cherished for each refugee community—for the Iraqis it's tomatoes and for Bhutanese it's limes or pomegranates," Eiswerth says.

She explains that when the people that she works with were back in refugee camps, their access to fresh fruits and vegetables was so limited that seeing produce literally go to waste all around them "makes no sense to them." Furthermore, her work in Africa and South America over the years has made the issue of food waste come to the forefront for her.

"If you've seen hunger and heard stories of famines ... stories of people dying of hunger, it's hard to just ignore it," she says.

Although Eiswerth started her career as a research geologist, she says Iskashitaa came about "by accident" when a bout of writer's block stood between her and a dissertation. She decided to take a break from writing and work on her community-mapping program, which is how Iskashitaa began. Although the program began harvesting only a couple thousand pounds of produce every year, now Iskashitaa harvests and redistributes 100,000 pounds of produce gleaned "mostly from backyards" to refugee groups in Tucson annually. However, Eiswerth is most proud of the reach her organization has in refugee groups globally.

"I've heard that refugees hear of Iskashitaa when they're still in refugee camps," she says. "I couldn't believe that. I thought I misunderstood it I first heard that."

With help from other non-profit organizations, local farms, volunteers, refugees, Tucson homeowners, and anywhere from five to 40 interns from the UA, ASU, Stanford, Duke, and more annually, Eiswerth coordinates this large network of people to "connect surplus with need." Now Eiswerth aims to take her program and tweak it to increase efficiency through surveys and built-in community groups like congregations.

"It's just common sense: You don't let food go to waste," she says. "But it's more than just brute force, you have to explore different ways to call the community to action."

While the farmers markets prove to serve as such a call, Iskashitaa uses food preservation workshops, partnerships with local businesses and galleries, and the "Food for Thought" potluck dinner series to find new methods of attracting interest to the network. The dinners in particular give members of the community the opportunity to try marked dishes from all over the world and interact with someone from a place they've never been before. All you have to do to join is bring a dish that represents where you've come from to the St. James United Methodist Church at 3255 N. Campbell Avenue on Thursday, Jan. 15, at 6 p.m.

In the future, Eiswerth seeks to partner with local farms for a more advanced agriculture training program for refugees to help develop a workforce skill set in conjunction with the English language practice the group already promotes. She also hopes more restaurants will begin looking to Iskashitaa for local produce and more refugees in the program will get their food handlers cards. Regardless of what new programs Eiswerth seeks to incorporate in the group, she says, "never without gleaning."

"I truly didn't know it would be this big," Eiswerth says. "I feel we're on the cusp of something powerful and sustainable, but it's going to take more than our small non-profit."

In fact, there is more going on in Tucson's gleaning world to help Iskashitaa in the mission to eliminate food waste, Although the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona has benefitted from Iskashitaa's harvesting efforts, the group also gleans in two different ways on their own accord.

Like Iskashitaa, the food bank takes requests from residents to come and pick excess fruit from their trees. Lou Medran heads the Community Food Bank's gleaning program now, though he says the initiative has been around for decades.

"It's odd how gleaning happens," Medran says. "It's all very grassroots. Our program started about 30 years ago back in the day in the orchards off of Orange Grove Road."

Focusing on citrus trees, Medran says over the course of three months, drivers are hired to go on two to three stops per day with a few trees at each stop. In those three months, which span from January to March each year, Medran estimates 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of citrus is gleaned from local trees at 250 different stops. If you’re interested in having Iskashitaa or the Community Food Bank come to glean the from your trees, you can contact either group via their websites at www.harvesttucson.com or www.communityfoodbank.com.

Admittedly, gleaning is a “tough job.” I tried my hand at it with Iskashitaa, and using pickers to rip stubborn, heavy grapefruit off the tops of 20-foot high trees definitely isn’t easy. That’s why Medran says this year the food bank is looking to promote their new program: Super Citrus Saturdays.

The program seeks to have able-bodied community members pick the excess citrus off their trees and bring in donations to travelling locations around the city, alleviating some of the work from the food bank workers. The first two dates will be Saturday, Jan. 24 and Saturday, Feb. 28, with specific locations of the events to be announced. However, Medran encourages locals to schedule an appointment if they’re no longer able to pick the fruit on their own trees.

“Some people like it because it helps keep their yards clean. A lot of times we get calls from retirees who need us to come because they can’t do it themselves anymore,” he explains. “Please don’t get on a ladder. We’ll do it for you”

The citrus gleaned in this program is put in the boxes that the food bank gives out to their clients. If the season is particularly, well, fruitful, the organization can also offer the citrus at their in-house market located at 3003 South Country Club Road. Medran says the fruit plays a key role in providing good, wholesome food to the people they help. “There’s also a nutritional aspect on anything we do. It’s so important to provide healthy choices for people,” he says.

Residential gleaning is only a very small part of the food rescue efforts that the food bank does. While Iskashitaa focuses on gleaning at the community and residential level, the food bank goes through different grocers to rescue between 6 to 8 million pounds of food each year that would otherwise be thrown away.

Medran estimates that one third of all food donated to the food bank comes from retail partners such as Fry’s, Whole Foods, Sprouts, Basha’s, Walmart, Albertson’s, and Trader Joe’s—just to name a few. Those retailers also hold food drives for the bank each year.

Stepping back on an even larger scale from commercial or retail gleaning, the 3000 Club is attempting to eliminate food waste at the distribution level. By collecting the produce distributors in Nogales deem unfit for retail sale, sorting though and eliminating inedible food by hand, and reselling the good produce, the 3000 Club saves 30 million pounds of food annually that would otherwise end up in landfills.

The 3000 Club then sells 60 pounds of this produce for just $10 during their travelling Market on the Move events. Since 2010, the group has gotten truckloads of about 36,000 pounds of produce at a time, which goes then to 600 different families. Ethel Luzario, president and CEO of the 3000 Club, says the mission of the group goes further than just rescuing the produce, especially when she sees foster parents of 10 adopted children able to feed their family or Lions Club members bringing nutritious food to seniors.

“It’s not about distributing the produce simply,” she says. “It’s about giving to the community—that’s why we’re so passionate about Market on the Move.”

Luzario says the spirit of giving radiates through those the group helps. At one recent Market on the Move event, one attendee donated $300 for her produce, paying for the next 29 families behind her and starting a chain of paying it forward.

“You see people start caring about other people,” Luzario says.

The 3000 Club also runs a thrift store out of their facility at 250 South Toole Avenue. Luzario says while food waste was the initial concern of the group, limiting waste in general has become the overall mission.

“In a way, we became a green nonprofit. We’re trying to prevent a lot of stuff from going in landfills,” she explains. “We have use for them.”

With high rates of food waste nationally, it’s encouraging to see groups like Iskashitaa, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, and the 3000 Club lending a hand to help redistribute food that would otherwise be left to rot and thrown away. At the very least, seeing these groups in action makes you look at the food you have, be it growing on a tree in your backyard or fresh from the grocery store produce aisle, in a new light.

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