SILVERTON, Ore. — Morning sunlight spilled over bushes of ripe berries at Zurbrugg Blueberries in Silverton Tuesday as volunteers from a nonprofit harvested a sweet antidote to the hunger suffered by many in nearby Salem, Ore.
Representatives from the Oregon Community Foundation were also on hand to award a $25,000 grant to the nonprofit, Salem Harvest, whose mission is “to feed hungry families by harvesting food that would go to waste.”
Amid the berry pickers, a blond, blue-eyed 3-year-old, giggling, tumbled into the soft grass from his perch on a big metal bowl.
His mom, Snowanna Stephenson, 31, of Salem, has cared for 17 foster children over the years and has seen the devastating impacts of hunger on children first-hand.
“Nearly all my foster kids have had food insecurity issues,” said Stephenson. “This has been so good for them. They’ve learned how food grows. I put the food on shelves at home where they can see it so they always know we have enough and they don’t have to be afraid anymore where the next meal will come from. It’s changed their relationship with food.”
In the U.S. today, according to the USDA, 40 million people — including 12 million children — struggle with food insecurity. That’s 1 in every 8 people.
Yet food is wasted at each stage, from farm to fridge to fork. At the retail and consumer level, according to the USDA, up to 40% of food goes to waste.
Fresh food is also wasted at the farm level. Dubbed “unmarketable” or “surplus,” it’s left unharvested in the fields or is never sent to market. In 2016, ReFed, a nonprofit doing research on food waste, reported that 20.2 billion pounds of fresh produce in the U.S. never reach the supply chain. That’s enough to build a city skyline — 27 towers of food that each weigh as much as the Empire State Building.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous for there to be hunger in a place with so much food,” said Elise Bauman, executive director of Salem Harvest.
Each year, the nonprofit “rescues” about 400,000 pounds of healthful produce, said Bauman. Salem Harvest hosts more than 200 harvests per year and works with up to 60 local growers.
Pat Zurbrugg, owner of Zurbrugg Blueberries, has partnered with Salem Harvest since 2017. Zurbrugg said he recently had to switch his operation to U-pick because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s new produce safety rule made it impossible for him to continue processing. He said he’s glad to use his excess berries to feed hungry families.
Low-income families with children along with unemployed, homeless and aging individuals who typically live in urban areas volunteer to harvest the crops. They get to take half of the produce home for themselves and donate the rest to local food banks and shelters.
This helps stitch together urban and rural people, said Bauman.
Lily Ellerton, program manager for the Union Gospel Mission of Salem, said Salem Harvest has had a positive impact on women living in their family shelter.
“The gals in our house are in survival mode when they first come to us,” said Ellerton. “They’re homeless. They’re hungry. There’s no sense of food security.”
Women from the shelter have volunteered multiple times with Salem Harvest.
Anna, who lives at the shelter and asked that her last name be withheld to protect her, said she loved her experience picking blueberries with Salem Harvest last year. She said she was excited to share the berries with her housemates and felt she was contributing to something bigger than herself.
“The girls in the house all loved the blueberries,” said Ellerton. “It filled people’s hearts and not just their bellies.”