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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

Urban School Gardens: A Nature Niche

by Jessie Rack

The world’s intrinsic beauty and complexity is a never-ending source of inspiration for educators. And we’ve all seen the results of being outside on our students, no matter what age — immersion in nature invites focus, observation, and simple noticing. Students with behavior or attention issues are sometimes stabilized in an outdoor environment. The smallest insect or rock becomes a fascination, and questions bloom without effort. 

As environmental educators, we don’t need to be told about the benefits of taking our students outside. In the last two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of studies on outdoor education, with authors citing results like better grades, higher test scores, and improvements in focusing attention and regulating behavior. But for those of us who, like more than 80% of the US population live in urban areas, helping our students reap the benefits of the outdoors is sometimes more complicated than simply taking them outside of the school. So how do we give urban children the experience and benefits of playing and learning outside? One way to do it is through school gardens. 

This approach works because school gardens occupy something of an in-between space: they are not quite the structured, rule-bound, indoor world of the classroom, and yet also not the unstructured freedom of the open desert, or the forest, or even the playground. And yet they encompass aspects of all of those spaces. Gardens are a place in which collaboration and communication happen naturally, in which rules are still followed, but in which students can learn from experience and from others, and can literally get their hands dirty, while their teachers can still achieve their curricular objectives and meet state and national standards.

There has also been a lot of research about the benefits of school gardens specifically – it’s been something of a hot topic for the past couple of decades. Research is ongoing, but it seems that school gardens can affect students in a variety of ways. These range from the most obvious areas of healthy eating, nutrition, and science to more subtle impacts such as positive social and emotional skills, group collaboration, and even increased environmental stewardship. 

With all of this in mind, stay tuned for a series of AAEE newsletter articles about school gardens. In future editions, I will be sharing some tips for starting and maintaining school gardens, and for using these gardens to fill the nature niche that many urban schools lack. My position, with the University of Arizona’s Community and School Garden Program, is unique; I run the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities Program, in which I work directly with students at Title I schools, providing weekly environmental education lessons to students at these low-resource urban schools in Tucson. I also work with my colleagues to install school gardens at schools around Tucson and to help train teachers to take care of the gardens and to use gardens in their curricula, using the gardens and outdoor spaces at the schools as living laboratories to get students outside and immersed in nature. No matter the age group or ability level, school gardens are an effective tool for engaging students, for improving focus and achievement, and for getting kids excited about their environment. And, of course, for getting a little dirty.

 

Jessie is a Board Member at AAEE. She received her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut in the spring of 2016. She is currently the Program Coordinator of the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities (SEEC) Program, an offshoot of the Community and School Garden Program at the University of Arizona.

Be part of our Community of Practice at the conference!

In 2018 we launched the Environmental Literacy Community of Practice (ELCoP) to bring together people from across the state to help solve the challenges around improving environmental literacy for Arizonans. Current ELCoP members will be hosting two special conference sessions and we’d love for you to join the conversation.

EE and the Well-Rounded Student: Accessing Title IV-A Funds to Support Programs

The ELCoP PK-12 Working Group has been in conversation with the Arizona Department of Education to help demonstrate the value of EE programs for supporting well-rounded students, a requirement of the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA). Join us at the conference on Saturday at 10:45 to hear what we’ve done, learn how you can contribute to the conversation and understand how to access Title IV-A funds (support for well-rounded students) to support your programs with PK-12 classrooms. 

Arizona Green Chamber Roundtable

The ELCoP Stakeholder Working Group has been exploring how to bring more voices to the conversation about environmental literacy. One particular voice that is often overlooked in education-focused conversations is that of green businesses. Partnerships for environmental literacy between green businesses and environmental educators have the potential to broaden reach through EE messaging to customers, and to strengthen educator capacity by applying business strategies to EE programs. Help us explore this potential with members of the Arizona Green Chamber in a roundtable and panel discussion during Saturday’s lunch.

Are you a green business owner? Arizona Green Chamber members can register for the AAEE Conference at the AAEE member rate. Email elp@arizonaee.org for more information!

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Growing Big Ideas in the Garden

A School Garden Story

By Ashley Fine

 Over the past decade, our staff, students, and families at Skyview School (Prescott, Arizona) have been continually expanding our school’s learning gardens. Currently, Skyview has several edible gardens throughout campus, a large native plant and pollinator garden, and an extensive rainwater harvesting system. The gardens around campus are cared for and enjoyed by students from every grade level and the staff have developed curriculum centered around these outdoor learning spaces.

While there are countless benefits to having gardens at our school, there are five main functions of our garden-centered curriculum: Education, Restoration, Sustainability, Empowerment, and Connection.

As a school, Skyview’s main purpose is clearly to educate. Our habitat garden serves as an outdoor classroom and living laboratory where students can learn about subjects across the curriculum. It is a place where students can explore science concepts such as plant and animal life cycles, weather, ecological relationships, nutrient cycles, geology, and technological innovation. The garden is also an environment in which  students learn about culture, history, native people, social justice, economics and labor. Our garden provides an opportunity for mathematics to be applied in real world scenarios. For example, the students took measurements and calculated the projected annual yield of rainwater that we can capture off our classroom roof. They collect data each school day to learn about daily changes in weather, and larger scale climate patterns. Our farm stand, in the fall, gives students the opportunity to market their goods, exchange money, and calculate the income and expenses related to their student-led business.

In addition to education, another purpose of our gardens is restoration. Just over a year ago, our habitat garden was a vacant lot filled with years of buried trash, debris, and invasive plant species. In the fall of 2017, the students from every grade level planted approximately 200 native plants, creating viable habitat for a variety of pollinator species. We are promoting the growth of wildflowers as an important food source for wildlife, and native grasses which play a critical role in the carbon cycle.

One year after planting, our students have witnessed dozens of species of butterflies, moths, birds, insects and reptiles in our garden. In September, we found loads of monarch caterpillars munching on our milkweed! Our students are getting the opportunity to transform our school neighborhood for good, and to experience, first hand, the positive impacts of ecological restoration.

Similarly, another important goal of our habitat garden is sustainability. Having numerous rain tanks in the children’s learning environment serves as a daily reminder of the importance of conservation. The students are learning about passive and active rain harvesting techniques and how to intentionally design a landscape to slow, spread, and absorb the water from the few precious rain storms we get each year. They are learning about groundwater, surface water, and captured rain, and the relationship between these water sources. Our ultimate goal with all of our rain harvesting infrastructure is to sustain our vegetable garden with captured rainwater year round and completely eliminate the need to use city supplied groundwater.

Likewise, in our edible garden, students  learn the importance of growing local food in order to reduce energy use and transportation costs. Small gardens, such as ours, eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides, all of which pose threats to human health and the environment. With changing conditions and a rapidly growing human population, natural resource literacy, and an understanding of sustainable food production, will be among the most valuable intellectual resources our children will need to carry with them into the future.

And this leads us to the next benefit of school gardens, which is empowerment. Some argue that true participatory democracy begins with participatory food production. Most people are passive consumers who simply go to the store to purchase the food they want- or the food they’ve been persuaded to want- rarely stopping to think about quality, process, impact or cost. Wouldn’t it be empowering, instead, to recognize, as Wendell Berry describes, that “the act of eating begins with planting and birth,” and is sustained by humans having a sensitive, responsive, and reciprocal relationship with plants. People with no knowledge or skills in the act and art of producing food lack the opportunity to experience true self reliance and liberty.

As Ron Finley, the gangster gardener of South Central Los Angeles states, “growing your own food is like printing your own money”. When children participate in the act of growing food and saving seeds, they start to recognize that money really does grow on trees!

And this brings us to the final benefit of our school gardens, which is connection. While this article has suggested a lot of idealistic ways our garden can be used as an educational tool and as a catalyst for change, the reality is, our students are probably not going to remember every point and detail of what is taught or discussed at school. What they will remember, though, is getting their hands muddy; holding a snail or earthworm in their palm; their surprise at pulling a giant, oddly shaped carrot out of the ground; the weight of water as they schlep a heavy watering can to their tiny sprouting seeds; and the feeling of simply being alive in a beautiful place.

In the garden, students get the chance to turn their attention away from phones and computer screens, in order to experience things that are alive and beautiful changing each day. They get to feel and appreciate the effort it takes to dig a hole in the ground, under the hot sun. They start to recognize weather as more than just a report, but rather a matter of life and death for tender living things growing in the garden.

When children get the chance to eat food that they were involved in growing, they are consuming more than just nutrients; They are feeding themselves with a story and a feeling of connection to all the resources and events that brought that fresh food to their young, curious mouths.

I had the great fortune of meeting Alice Watters at a Slow Food conference in Denver, CO in 2017. During one of her talks, she said something that really stuck with me. She explained that when children have beautiful spaces within their learning environment, “they know that they are loved without needing to be told.” They know that people who care about them took time to create a special place for them, where they can feel calm, safe, valued, and inspired.

 A colorful, fragrant garden is a place that excites the senses and the imagination, where learning can be visceral, memorable, and delicious. It is these deep-tissue learning experiences that result, later on, in responsible decision-making and stewardship. It is my hope that our gardens at Skyview School are one example of a small beginning, and that the school garden movement will continue to take hold in schools everywhere, especially in places where children would never, otherwise, get these kinds of learning experiences and opportunities.

Education, Restoration, Sustainability, Empowerment, and Connection are among the most important things we should be growing and cultivating in our schools, and gardens are the best place to dig in!

Ashley presenting on school garden programming during a Prescott College professional development institute

Have a school garden story to share? Comment and let us know!

Also, stay tuned for more on: School Gardening in Arizona (our climate brings unique challenges and opportunities!), The Dirt on Green Schoolyards (a growing national movement & why!), Planting Standards (state standards, NGSS, and the EE Guidelines are easy in the garden!) and more.