Posts

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

The University of Arizona Garden Kitchen

Today’s conversation is with Jennifer Parlin, Assistant in Extension, for The Garden Kitchen. The Garden Kitchen, located in South Tucson, is a University of Arizona Cooperative Extension program established in partnership with the City of South Tucson, Pima County, and the University of Arizona. The Garden Kitchen’s mission is to empower Pima County residents to build community wellness and make healthier choices through food, fitness, and gardening education.

According to Making Action Possible in Southern Arizona, in 2017, 137,450 individuals in Tucson had limited access to food.

Broader food security on the other hand, proved an issue for nearly one million people in Arizona. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization defines food security as a circumstance that “exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Food insecurity, and particularly the inability to access food, can be heightened by many factors, including household composition, race/ethnicity, income-to-poverty ratio, area of residence and even census region. With stay-at-home orders, overwhelmed pantries, school closings, and unemployment rates rising due to COVID-19, vulnerable households are being impacted even more by food insecurity and access.

Many organizations within Tucson work with communities to increase access to affordable and nutritious foods in areas where they are needed. One such organization is The Garden Kitchen, which itself is located in the middle of a food desert. A food desert refers to a geographic area with where people have low access to food. These areas are often the result of food apartheid, a term coined by food justice activist Karen Washington that roots the disparities of food access and systems in discrimination, racism, and other systemic issues. Indeed, food insecurity and the lack of nutritious resources affect many families in the 1.2 square mile city of South Tucson, with many minority groups such as Hispanic and Native American communities, single mothers, grandparents, the indigent, and LGTBQ+ individuals experiencing homelessness being disproportionately affected. As an organization, The Garden Kitchen aims to increase food security and the availability of healthy foods for everyone, including these underrepresented communities. They partner with organizations in Pima County to change policies, systems, and environments to address health issues by making healthy lifestyle choices equitably accessible to all community members.

The Garden Kitchen is funded by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) program, an evidence-based program that teaches qualified individuals how to shop for and cook healthy meals, and stretch their food dollars. By nature of their partnerships, they reach out to a variety of audiences, including those who access SNAP benefits and those who are involved with community gardens and classes through other community organizations.  Building trust is a top priority when working with communities within Tucson — not just with state and university partners, but also with local and grassroots communities. Trust is a component that can be difficult to establish, particularly when dominant systems and actors have participated in marginalization, but it is essential to the evolution of work and exchange of knowledge in the Tucson community.

Tackling food access is not just about education or having geographic proximity to food. The Garden Kitchen is also involved in suggesting changes at the policy level in many communities within Pima County, such as initiatives to serve healthy food options at events, change vending machine choices, and empower families to select healthier foods. Policies around food make some food items harder to get based on location, price, quality and availability. This can include organic, cultural, and non-fast food choices. The fewer resources (e.g. time, money, transportation) someone has, the more likely they are to be in a position where they consume the food they can access. By partnering with different community organizations at the policy level, The Garden Kitchen is able to have longer lasting effects with their efforts. The Garden Kitchen advocates for policies that make nutritious foods convenient, affordable and appealing, as these factors contribute to people changing their consumer habits.

While providing their own support to the Tucson community is an important part of The Garden Kitchen’s mission, so too is empowerment. The Garden Kitchen works with community members to be in charge of their own health. Before COVID-19 changes, The Garden Kitchen would hold free weekly and monthly events, such as “First Fit Saturdays,” which welcomes all community members monthly to get involved with gardening, cooking, and physical activity. They would also host a “Gardening Hour” each week to provide a space for locals to learn about home gardening and to allow them to harvest produce.

Although they aren’t currently hosting any in person events, they have provided online resources regarding food security, employment, sanitation, wellness and community gardens. More than ever, the conversation around food security, access and the systems which shape them must be addressed. How is health and wellness being advocated for in your community?

#HowWeNature is a series of posts dedicated to conversations about justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in Tucson’s natural history programming. This post was written by AAEE intern, Phoebe Warren. Phoebe is a student at Appalachian State University who is majoring in communication studies with a minor in sociology.

Questions to ponder: How can you advocate for the health and wellness of everyone in your community? Are you reaching out to and welcoming underserved communities to your spaces? Are you including accurate cultural history in your teachings?

The Garden Kitchen is always in need of volunteers who are knowledgeable about gardens, food sources, and culture. Check out their ‘Get Involved’ page at https://thegardenkitchen.org/get-involved/ to learn more.

EE Organizations in the Pandemic

by Kelly Jay Smith, University of Arizona

In the wake of pandemic many Environmental Education (EE) organizations across Arizona and the nation have been experiencing major setbacks.

In an attempt to measure the effects of the pandemic on the EE field, the Lawrence Hall of Science – part of the University of California Berkeley, surveyed nearly 1,000 EE organizations. They found the 63% percent of EE & outdoor science organizations are not if they will be able to open again if pandemic restrictions and impacts last until the end of the year.

You can read the full policy briefing from this study at:

The Impact of COVID-19 on Environmental Education and Outdoor Science Education

However, with science museums, residential programs, and other formal/informal environmental & science education institutions not able to engage the public in the usual face-to-face programs throughout the pandemic, new ways of engaging the public in a safe way have been coming to the forefront.  The Lawerence Hall of Science has attempted to be a part of this solution.  Lawerence Hall of Science, the developer of the Amplify Science, FOSS, and SEPUP science curriculums, has coordinated with the publishers of these curriculums to make sure environmental & science learning can continue at home.  This includes providing access to digital simulations, video lessons, allowing unregistered user access to websites, and much more.  You can learn more about what they are offering by following the link below.

https://www.lawrencehallofscience.org/about/newsroom/in_the_news/learning-at-home

This same type of innovation can be found here close to home in Arizona, as well.  The Cooper Center for Environmental Learning has created Camp Cooper Online – a free video series for K-5 students.  These videos created by the educators at the Cooper Center have created activities that can be done at home while viewing the videos.  More information about what the Cooper Center is doing can be found in the link below.      

https://coopercenter.arizona.edu/

Environmental Education has always been about exploring the world around us.  During this unprecedented time in our history, using innovative ways to bring both science and environmental education into the home is more important than ever.