GleanSLO Co-Founder Carolyn Eicher on Food Rescue: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Carolyn Eicher is the heart, soul and co-founding innovator of a community movement that led to the creation of GleanSLO. She would be the first to describe it as a team effort that took advantage of dozens of creative women and men who wanted to rise to the challenge of rescuing food in a community where so many go hungry. An avid photographer, Carolyn’s pictures have helped tell the GleanSLO story for many years. Carolyn recently sat down to answer some questions about the history and future of this innovative endeavor.

Group shot of the past and present steering committee members & staff at Cal Poly at the satsuma glean in early 2019.

What drew you to the issue of food rescue?

Well, for one, I was inspired by my father who was an Agricultural Economist and who spent his career focused on food insecurity and food production in Africa. I was born in West Africa and though I did not grow up there, I visited my birth country and several countries in Southern Africa in my 20’s. I also traveled with my father to India and Pakistan after finishing my undergraduate degree and continued to learn about his commitment to ending hunger. I often listened to my dad brainstorming about solutions to ending hunger and feel I was influenced by his passion for helping, educating and learning from others. I admired my dad’s commitment to Africa but personally have focused on issues in my own community.

My dedication to local food issues also developed naturally from volunteer work. I helped support school gardens through a non-profit several community members and I started, called SLO Grown Kids, over ten years ago. The fabric of GleanSLO was woven by the efforts and dedication of the passionate folks in our community who believed this program was possible. I wish I could honor and list each significant player in this interview from those memorable early days.

While I was becoming focused (or should I say obsessed) with helping to get this program off the ground, someone close to me was in a challenging situation and needed food assistance for their family from their local food pantry. I learned how little fresh produce was available to them. It made me more dedicated to this program. As I walked our city neighborhoods, seeing fruit that had fallen off the trees, and often rolling into the street, it made me more focused on helping get this program off the ground. We live in the land of plenty yet people are hungry. I remain committed to being a part of the solution to this challenge.

The Early Days

Our early days, we were on call seven days a week and were truly “emergency gleaners.” We rescued most crops, often within 24 hours of receiving a call from a homeowner. We weren’t receiving many calls like we are today, and only with a small core group of people. We’d send them an email, inviting them to the harvest. Homeowners would call and say, “Our plum tree has fruit dropping to the ground and we can’t keep up with it, can you harvest it today?”

One early glean, I showed up to harvest one extra bunch of greens from a homeowner’s backyard who was so excited to share with us. I realized then that almost everyone wants to do their part to help out their neighbors. Whether it’s one bunch of greens, or our harvests today which can include large bins full of oranges, crates of tomatoes, or 2,000 pounds of cabbage, people want to donate any way they can.

Today we have greater infrastructure in place so we can spread out around the county with our trained harvest leaders to lead numerous small gleans each week. When we began, our first employee and AmeriCorps member, Caroline Ginsberg, recruited a network of volunteers, got the word out to farmers and produce donors, and she and I drove the trucks from the warehouse to the fields. We are lucky now to have a dedicated employee, Chuck Asmus, who drives the trucks, supervises many of the large gleans, and has led over 800 harvests!

We started to have media recognition. Through radio, TV and print, the word about GleanSLO started to get out. We received a small grant to start up a pilot farmers’ market collection program where we collect unsold produce from farmers at the end of the Thursday night downtown market and the Templeton Saturday market. The Salvation Army has been our partner agency for the Thursday evening market and they distribute the produce that is given to us each week. From the market collections, we’ve continued to form connections and have visibility with farmers and volunteers.

Carolyn Eicher in 2010 at SLO Creek Farms where she first started gleaning large farms/orchards.

What role does GleanSLO play against the backdrop of food insecurity in the county?

Food insecurity is often on my mind. There are usually a lot of happy people when we are gleaning as it really is feel-good work. But underneath it there is a more serious tone of why we are there. And the bottom line is people are hungry. People are struggling to make ends meet. SLO County is one of the most expensive places to live in the country, and people often work several jobs and get creative with housing. Food can be an added expense to an already tight budget. Any role GleanSLO can play in providing access to nutritious food to families and individuals fits into the Food Bank Coalitions’s mission to alleviate hunger and build a healthier community.

I often hope that when we are giving our intro talk, welcoming people into the fields and providing a bit of history, we share the statistics that 1 in 6 people in our county is food insecure, and that that information opens the eyes of our volunteers. Over 46,000 people in our community are food insecure, and often our volunteers, farmers and donors are stunned by this staggering number. While rescuing produce in fields, orchards and yards, we have an opportunity for conversation about this important topic.

Harvesting food is hard physical work, and hopefully this creates more appreciation for our food, our farmers and farm workers. By hearing about the numbers of people who are hungry, this might hopefully help us think more about our neighbors. If more people are aware of hunger in our county, and it is on our mind more often, collectively, I believe more solutions will be found.

How does the pairing of the Food Bank Coalition and GleanSLO complement each other?

This is a relationship that formed very strategically and with a lot of discussion about how it would work. We had a lot of “out of the box” thinkers and that was useful in imagining all that was possible. When we started as an independent entity, there were many things we needed to do on our own such as buying harvesting equipment, providing transportation, etc. All of this is covered by the Food Bank Coalition which directly supports the efforts of GleanSLO. It’s a beautiful partnership in my opinion! We started as a grassroots organization, but through our Steering Committee and dedicated Food Bank Coalition staff we are able to continue our conversations, listen to the community and share ideas for innovation and change.

Dedicated employee Chuck Asmus drives the trucks, supervises many of the large gleans, and has led over 800 harvests.

How were farmer relationships cultivated?

Shortly after we first started harvesting in backyards in 2010, we received a call from the Gable family who owns SLO Creek Farms. They have acres of apple trees and generously offered our crew endless opportunities to glean from their orchards. They have donated over 20,000 pounds of organic apples over the years!

Soon after, we were contacted by Stephanie Buresh from Mission College Preparatory High School (MCP). Generous farmer and MCP parent Tom Ikeda wanted to provide high school students with the opportunity to glean his family’s fields. He and Stephanie met with us to set up a gleaning schedule for fall and spring. The MCP gleaning opportunities continue to this day.

Tom connected us with the Talley family who had already been donating weekly produce directly to the Food Bank Coalition. Through the MCP partnership, they also welcomed us and provided some of our memorable large row crop gleaning experiences. I’ll never forget when an MCP crew harvested bell peppers from the Talley fields in about 30-40 minutes. We brought only one truck and the students filled it up in what we had estimated would take 2 hours! Through Tom Ikeda, the Talleys and the Gables, word spread to other farmers.

Each farmer who donates to us has the spirit of generosity. The farmers don’t want to waste any crops that might not meet high commercial standards. Because of their commitment to helping their community, our local county residents receive a wide variety of local produce. The farmers offer their fields, orchards, or yard to us, trusting that we will be respectful of their land and that their food will help those in need. Our volunteers feel good when people are fed. It is a win-win-win.

What is your favorite crop to photograph?

Truly, the one that is right in front of me at the moment! I love capturing the beauty of our fresh, local produce. Favorite crops I’ve photographed are gorgeous tomatoes from Talley Farms, cabbage from Tom Ikeda, apples from SLO Creek Farms, figs from a Neighborhood Harvest, and peaches from See Canyon. I am in awe of the produce that our farmers grow locally and feel lucky to be able to take photographs to honor their generosity.

Even more important to me than taking pictures of produce is photographing our volunteers and our farmers. One of our former employees called my pictures “gleaning glamour shots.” When people are gleaning, they are usually happy —they are outside, being physical and doing something to give back. Last week on a harvest, I took pictures and “air dropped” the images to the Cal Poly students so they could have photos for their class presentations about GleanSLO. If people enjoy the images I take of them and share the photos of their experience with GleanSLO, it helps us spread the word. Photography for me is a very rewarding experience. It is a way that I enjoy giving back to GleanSLO and our community.

Carolyn Eicher enjoys capturing the beauty of the bountiful produce that is being harvested around SLO County.

What are some of the most memorable gleans you have been on?

This is another tough question as I have so many favorites from over the years! I still remember one of the first harvests when we knocked on a door and an elderly gentleman was thrilled that we could use his oranges. I walk by that house to this day nine years later and can still picture his enthusiastic response. I have a map in my mind of dozens of fruit trees around the city and can recall harvests that have taken place in those yards.

I can recall the details of many of the harvests – how it felt to be in the orchard on a warm summer day when the peaches were especially ripe. Memorable gleans for me are when I see friendships form, conversations that take place, and where our community learns about our local farms, farmers and ways to support each other.

GleanSLO provides an opportunity to spend time with other volunteers we may or may not know doing something for people we may never meet. I love to think about people who might not have a chance to get to know each other having a conversation around an orange tree. Or people walking side by side through a field carrying crates of bell peppers and finding they have something in common. I’m deeply sentimental and the acts of kindness our community shows through offering and sharing food and harvesting is a beautiful thing. This continues to propel me and keeps me focused on this work as it has over the last ten years.

What have been some unexpected outcomes from starting this organization?

One surprising outcome is the variety of ways we’ve been able to collect produce and how creative our community is. For example, we now collect via farmers’ markets, school collections, farm and backyard harvests of course, and straight donations of already harvested produce. We’ve had one local business collect produce from their employees and they set up their own internal farmers’ market and the donations for the produce that was grown in their own backyards went to GleanSLO. I thought that was amazingly creative!

Another surprising outcome is the obvious — the total amount of produce that has been harvested! Never could I have imagined when we were picking those first few trees that we would harvest 1.5 million pounds in the coming years. We knocked on a lot of doors and got a fair share of rejections when we first started out. People hadn’t heard about us. They didn’t know how the program worked. We no longer knock on doors but we do have door hangers. If we notice a tree that is abundant and fruit dropping to the ground, we have hangers that we drop off. They mention the GleanSLO website, phone number, and email address.

Another unexpected outcome is the interaction we’ve had with local school children, parents, teachers and administrators. A few students came up with the idea of a fruit collection day at their elementary school where families could drop off excess fruit they harvest from their own trees. We then arranged for the Food Bank Coalition truck to pick up from the school so the students could see the direct impact – the citrus in dozens and dozens of bags being loaded into the Food Bank Coalition truck by an employee who would take it back to the warehouse to be distributed. I think we need to value and listen to more of our school children and continue to get ideas from them.

Carolyn Eicher’s daughter Sabina Zink holds some peppers she harvested at Talley Farms.

What do you see as the future of GleanSLO?

My brain is wired to try and solve problems, and to think of ways we can help each other. I receive numerous newsletters from other gleaning organizations and I continue to be inspired by other projects like ours around the world. Ask me in five years about other surprises I have, and I hope by then we will have done a lot of other innovative experiments in gathering, and sharing food, and strengthening our connections to each other.

– By Roxanne Sanders, GleanSLO Program Manager