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Backyard Harvest: Food Brings a Community Together

by Bruce Boyers

A good portion of the diseases that relate to our industrial food system, such as diabetes, occur in low-income areas. This is simply because those people don't have access to fresh food—let alone nutritious, locally grown fresh food. In a great example of community cooperation, this problem is being solved in northern Idaho through a non-profit organization called Backyard Harvest, which is helping to make healthy food available to an enormous number of low-income families and senior citizens in the area.

“Our mission is to provide everyone within the community with better access to fresh, locally grown food, particularly low-income families and older adults,” Amy Grey, executive director of Backyard Harvest, told Calmful Living. “If you’re on food stamps, or if you depend on food banks, you really don’t have all that much access to healthy food choices.

“Particularly among low-income groups, you have dietary diseases that are linked to eating habits—heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Yet when you look at the average food-bank selection, it’s filled with foods that contribute to those conditions. We can’t tell people to make healthier food choices, but we can certainly place fresh fruits and vegetables within easier reach so that people are not forced into having unhealthy food as the only option out there.”

Backyard Harvest has several programs through which it collects fresh local produce and makes it available. Not only do nearby residents donate extra bounty from fruit trees, gardens and poultry that they raise, but the organization has been the recipient of donated land on which it grows its own crops. Additionally, it is part of a program that reaches out and helps educate members of the community so they are better able to grow, prepare and preserve local foods. Through its own traveling food stand as well as through several neighborhood farmers’ markets, people on food-stamp programs can also buy fresh produce provided by Backyard Harvest.

The program began as a rather humorous gardening mistake. “Five years ago, I accidentally grew too much lettuce in my first vegetable garden,” Grey related. “I grew 200 head of lettuce all at once! So I made an emergency trip to the food bank. Once there, I realized that while they had a lot of non-perishable items and packaged foods, fresh foods just weren’t in the budget. I thought that this was something I could address. Just by walking out in my backyard, I could change that. One thing led to another, and it turned out I wasn’t the only gardener with an overly eager green thumb! Soon we had a group of gardeners that were donating to the food banks, and Backyard Harvest was born.

“It started out with just taking surplus from our gardens, but then it quickly dawned on us that there was food within our communities from residential fruit trees as well. So we started a gleaning operation* in addition to the gathering of surplus; and today, we also take residential plots and grow intentionally for donation.

“We collected about 4,000 pounds of fresh, locally grown produce in our first season, and this past year we collected 32,000 pounds. So obviously the idea has caught on; and despite the short growing season up here in Idaho, we have discovered that highly localized food sources are out there and often overlooked. It’s just a matter of coordinating the effort to gather that food and then getting it to those who may not have easy access to it.”

For Amy, it was initially a volunteer activity for the community—but it has since become much more. “I was actually a freelance promotional designer,” she said. “This is the first year that I finally said, ‘Okay, I can’t do both.’ So I’m doing Backyard Harvest full time now. For a long while I was handling business design on the side, but Backyard Harvest provides me with plenty of design opportunities, so I’m still getting to work my creative side.

“It really has taken on a life of its own through the course of the five years since we first got started. We have a small permanent staff now, and it’s always an interesting challenge building the budget each year, but we manage to do it. And we have gotten a lot of community support.”

It hasn’t just been support, however, but also true community involvement. “People have been overwhelmingly positive,” said Amy. “One of the nice things about Backyard Harvest is that some of the families we distribute food to also give food back into the project. They wouldn’t ever have the wherewithal to write a check, but they can certainly donate a few onions or zucchini at the end of the year. It involves everyone within the community regardless of income level, and I think that’s a good thing too.”

With Amy’s promotional background, she has found ways to show positive aspects of Backyard Harvest to the many diverse groups within her area—another way of pulling the community together. “Backyard Harvest can be framed in a lot of different ways,” Amy explained. “We live in the state of Idaho, which is very conservative. For that sector, it’s really easy for me to make the argument that this is about self-sufficiency and neighbors helping neighbors, and being reliant on what the community can do for itself. We also have a number of churches, and I can frame it in terms of Christ and the fish and the loaves and sharing with one another. Or, finally, I can frame it as a social justice issue, and that speaks to another segment. So I think that as a non-profit we enjoy really broad-based support. This is something that people can come together to agree on and work on, even though they might disagree in principle on a lot of other issues.”

Amy concluded with a summary of what keeps her motivated to continue Backyard Harvest.

“There are so many problems in our country that just seem bigger than we are,” she said. “What I think is neat is that, with this one, all people have to do is walk out their back door and plant a small garden, or expand the garden that they have, or register their fruit tree that’s been feeding the birds for the last decade. There are so many ways to get involved above and beyond just writing a check once a year. I like to say on the one hand this is about food, but really this is about building community.”

For more information on Backyard Harvest, visit their website at www.backyardharvest.org.

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*Gleaning: Originally, the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they had been commercially harvested, or from fields where it was not economically profitable to harvest. Some ancient cultures promoted gleaning as an early form of a welfare system.

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