Turning Waste into Purpose

Today’s conversation is with Barbara Eiswerth PhD,  Executive Director of Iskashitaa Refugee Network (IRN). 

Barbara was interviewed by Kathe Sudano, May 8, 2020.

It is shocking to think that the largest single source of waste is in the United States is food!  Unbelievable that this is the item that takes up the most room in landfills.  People in the United States are obsessed with how food looks but are less concerned or unaware about nutritional value. Fruit is also so cheap that most individuals do not give a second thought to waste. Additionally, most backyard fruit trees are a pretty addition to homeowner’s space but are hardly utilized to their full potential. Starting to see the picture?

Barbara Eiswerth, executive director, with Iskashitaa volunteers at the UArizona Community Garden

Dr. Barbara Eiswerth, disturbed by the “colossal food waste she witnessed in America and how people, made poor, survive”, decided something needed to be done about this issue back in 2003.  Thus, Iskashitaa Refugee Network (IRN) was born to help reduce food waste in Tucson while integrating United Nations refugees into the community. Out of the nearly 20 million refugees in the world, fewer than one percent are considered for resettlement worldwide. And resettlement has its own challenges, from being dropped into a country with a new culture and language, to acquiring healthy, fresh foods. Iskashitaa seeks to remedy both challenges: help integrate refugees into their new home and provide the community with fresh produce.

Iskashitaa translates to ‘working cooperatively together’ in a language of the Somali Bantu ethnic group.  Eiswerth’s created the organization based on efforts to introduce youth and United Nation refugees to volunteering and sharing their foodways,  She built on thousands of hours working alongside the community to assist  Southern Arizona hunger relief organizations.  To begin with, Eiswerth recruited refugee students to participate in a project identifying and mapping locations where edible trees were growing and where much of the produce was going to waste in Tucson.  The process was one of trial and error and according to Barbara, “mistakes were made – including cultural and religious ones”.  But mistakes became learning opportunities. Over the years, the IRN team put in long hours and herculean efforts and located, harvested, and redistributed locally grown fruits and vegetables which would otherwise go to waste.

An Iskashitaa volunteer harvesting grapefruit in 2019

The programs have evolved from harvesting a few thousand pounds of fruit to an annual harvest of over 50 tons of fruits, nuts and vegetables from backyards, local farms, and orchards.  Dr. Eiswerth emphasizes that IRN would not be able to harvest over 150,000 pounds of local produce annually without the dedication of many volunteers, interns, and AmeriCorps members that have built the network to what it is today.

According to a NY Times article Meet the Gleaners, IRN was one of many organizations that was “perfectly positioned to leverage one problem- a bounty of unsellable crops- to help solve another: rampant hunger”. IRN operates the only year-round gleaning program in Southern Arizona.  They educate their volunteers on the multiple uses of traditional and non-traditional, native, and non-native fruits, nuts, pods, seeds and even flowers.  Most IRN families have limited incomes and few opportunities for social interaction and this practice of “gleaning”, or gathering produce after the harvest, presents a solution to both issues. IRN events provide access to fresh, health produce and allow refugees to build their community networks.

IRN quickly recognized the need to identify community refugee leaders as “ambassadors” and engage them in the work of their organization.  By recruiting refugee volunteers, the organization increased its visibility within different cultural groups while also helping new residents become familiar with their new city and its outdoor spaces. IRN builds bridges in the community that increase cultural competency and diversity awareness. IRN programs have been addressing issues related to social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion since its inception.  Refugees face language barriers that permeate almost every aspect of their lives, such as their ability to use public transportation. Through Iskashitaa’s harvesting division, volunteers have the opportunity to visit gardens, farms, green houses, and residential neighborhoods.

A traditional Eritrean meal of njera with various meat and vegetarian entrees

In turn, refugees offer up their skills and knowledge in various forms, including cooking classes and cultural luncheons that are a part of the new culinary division.  IRN currently partners with over forty different local hunger relief organizations to make their programs happen.

These activities provide a two-way cultural exchange. Refugees learn more about culture in the US as well as the English language. At the same time, local community members learn about the culture and languages of the refugees. IRN has worked to educate community volunteers about the cultures they serve and the food that grows in the Southwest.  This way, Iskashitaa helps refugees and asylum seekers integrate into the community. Programs and tools that achieve these goals include the Tucson Botanical Garden Edible Tree tours program, language cheat sheets, and picture dictionaries with commons foods found in markets in Arizona.

IRN helps restore the lives of UN refugees by creating partnerships between refugees, volunteers, and local organizations. Their local food-focused programs cultivate community connections, networking, education, entrepreneurship, leadership and applied English language practice. IRN’s intent is to empower others to develop the skills necessary to grow not only towards self-sufficiency, but towards community integration.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to leave your home, your city, your country.  Imagine needing to be relocated but knowing little about your new home, the local food, or the language.  How would you go about feeding yourself and your family?  What assistance do you imagine you would require?

If you would like to help, IRN has many opportunities for you to volunteer! We are always recruiting, especially those interested in diverse cultural experiences, translation, and local agriculture. Every citrus season we need fruit trees to harvest. Become a fruit spy and help IRN identify possible harvesting sites within your community!  Got citrus trees or other in-season fruits? Fill out our Fruit Donor Form to let us know you’d like us to come harvest. Our harvesting coordinator will get back to you as soon as possible!

Oranges harvested by Iskashitaa, 2018