Odds are you have a food bank in your community. It’s not something we think of often, if at all; yet it’s nice to know it’s there to take care of those in need. But what if that food bank were to run out of food? Who, then, would feed the growing number of hungry in our communities? That’s the question that Aletha Soule from Slow Harvest, a program that connects excess food in western Sonoma County with the people who need it, is helping to answer.
The need is becoming critical. According to a survey by Feeding America, the country’s leading domestic hunger-relief agency, more than half of food banks reported that they had to turn people away due to lack of food in the last year. There are a record number of new clients relying on America’s food banks and over 20 percent more food dispersed this year over last. Federal and state programs are certainly a help, but people like Aletha are tapping into a resource closer to home—the manpower of community members themselves.
Last Tuesday I was part of a canning initiative through Aletha’s Slow Harvest. Fifteen of us signed on to can 400 pounds of tomatoes gleaned from local growers, a number that climbed to 1,000 pounds due to incredibly generous donors, to donate to two local food pantries.
We gathered at Relish Culinary Center here in Healdsburg and made a quick round of introductions before setting to work. A crew manned the stove, plunging bunch after bunch of tomatoes into boiling water to loosen their skins. Then onto the table the tomatoes rolled to be peeled, chopped and—what to call it—squished by hand into a sort of chunky sauce. That sauce got poured into huge stock pots and brought to a boil, then ladled into jars to be ‘processed’ in a steam bath.
After about half an hour we’d all found our groove and conversation began to blossom, despite the fact that most of us were strangers. This is the type of activity that has been the glue of families and communities for countless generations and there was something humbling—for me, anyway—about stepping into such well-worn shoes. Even just a century ago, the majority of Americans were intimately tied to agriculture; their very survival depended on what they could bring up from the land, and canning and preserving were part of that cycle. Nowadays, very few of us are connected to the farms that feed us, and our family size and generational span has dwindled. So in many ways a gathering like this—using surplus food picked from neighboring farms and labor supplied by willing hands—is really just an extension of a much deeper, traditional pattern that has been playing out over millennia.
And the “extended family” of our communities needs us now. Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America, noted that “most economists project that unemployment lags the return of economic stability following a recession by one to two years. This means that the incredible strain on the nation’s charitable food assistance network is not likely to dissipate any time in the foreseeable future.”
The good news is . . . you can help. If you want to join a gleaning project near you, click here. If you’d like to learn more about preserving so that you can organize a gathering similar to the one I attended on Tuesday, check out the canvolution. Or if you’ve got an excess of those darned zucchini we talked about earlier this week, call your food bank or contact a gleaning organization near you to donate.
With all of us coming together, we’ve got enough. We can do this.