From afterthought to helping hand

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WALLA WALLA -- In a valley of plenty, Lindsey Williams found herself puzzled over why the wealth of local, fresh produce isn't available to all, she said.

"I just didn't see the reason for people in an agricultural-based community to not be able to eat the things we grow here, things that Walla Walla is known for."

Last May, Williams decided she'd like to follow a model she saw in Moscow, Idaho, to get abundant, locally-grown onions, asparagus, apples and more onto the plates of folks who can least afford them.

With a cadre of volunteers and friends, the Walla Walla woman began Hometown Harvest, a movement that puts Williams in the thick of the gardening season here.

The general concept of her plan is simple math -- one zucchini plant multiplies by 20 at harvest time, resulting in "way too much" for the gardener to consume. Why not, then, get the excess food to where it's needed most?

"I wanted to give people the option to give it away without the hassle of the food banks," Williams explained, referring to limited open hours at most Walla Walla food giveaway sites.

Her volunteers can help harvest for donors, getting fruit off the trees and digging up potatoes, for example. "They call us that day and, literally, that day I can pick it up."

The recipients will already have qualified for help with groceries from local food pantries, she said. "As people fall on hard times, we want them to be able to eat well anyway. It's a lot cheaper to eat rice or starchy things, but everyone needs vegetables."

The same ideal is behind Blue Mountain Action Council's Walla Walla Community Harvest program.

In partnership with the Spokane-based Rotary First Harvest, BMAC adopted a traditional approach of gleaning -- gathering food left in the fields and orchards after harvest, explained program coordinator Casi Christensen.

It began when social service agencies found that trucking leftover farm produce to distribution centers would get the good nutrition into more hands before it perished, she noted. "But the little towns were not getting that."

In November, BMAC, which serves folks who need help in any number of ways, began its version of the concept, using AmeriCorps members like Christensen to reach out to and engage local farmers. As well, the program was given 200 pounds of vegetable seeds, Christensen said. "Beets, Swiss chard, broccoli, radishes, melon ...we've been giving those out, encouraging people to plant an extra row."

On Wednesday evening, the group gleaned from a local farm, gathering 112 pounds of radishes, spinach and salad greens, which will soon be appearing on dinner plates all over the Walla Walla Valley.

At the moment, Hometown Harvest and Walla Walla Community Harvest -- which both have Facebook pages full of information -- are mostly in the "growing" stage of their plans, the women said.

That means getting the word out to big-time and backyard farmers, helping food pantry users become familiar with preparing fresh food (especially the not-so common offerings like rhubarb, Christensen pointed out) and encouraging everyday gardeners to plant, plant, plant.

Even those with limited ground space can contribute by using square-foot and raised-bed gardening, Williams said. "People are finding places to put gardens."

For the gleaning program, Christensen is hopeful of hauling about 25,000 pounds of leftover fruits and vegetables to the Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank, which distributes to 10 sites that feed the hungry.

She's seeded the Hometown Harvest Facebook page with gardening and food prep tips, Williamson noted.

She and Christensen have found the more they talk to the community about gardening, the more excited people become. "I really feel like people are moving back toward what their grandparents did," Williams said. "It's familiar and it's good for you."

Learning and caring about personal nutrition is a movement she sees gaining a lot of attention, she added. "I want to understand where my food comes from."

Getting the community on board with gleaning and planting for donating won't happen overnight, Christensen knows. "We're in this for the long haul and we hope other people are, too."

For information on how to participate in volunteer gleaning or giving your leftover produce to help others: Lindsey Williams of Hometown Harvest can be contacted at 509-200-5212, or via the Hometown Harvest - Walla Walla Facebook page, www.facebook.com/hometownharvest. Casi Christensen of Blue Mountain Action Council's Walla Walla Community Harvest can be reached at 509-730-5710 or casic@bmacww.org or at www.facebook.com/wallawallacommunityharvest.

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