Tucson gleaning group offers refugees healing through food waste

In Tucson, the Iskashitaa Refugee Network is helping refugees heal from trauma by gleaning fruit from backyards across the city. “Iskashitaa — which means ‘working cooperatively together’ in Somali Bantu, the ethnicity of many early volunteers — provides more than just healthy food,” writes Jonathan Bloom in FERN’s latest story, published with NPR’s The Salt.

“We provide healing through harvesting,” says Barbara Eiswerth who founded the organization in 2003. “We help refugees belong to something, and we give them a chance to give back to a country that gave them a second lease on life.”

Every year, Iskashitaa saves more than 50 tons of fruit from going to the landfill or rotting on the ground, “but that’s only about 10 percent of what’s locally available. (Nationally, about a third of fruit and vegetables are lost or wasted along the food chain),” explains Bloom. The refugees and other volunteers turn that fruit into condiments like marmalade, syrups, pickles and juice.

For many of the refugees coming from countries where hunger is rampant, food waste is an unfamiliar concept. “In Ethiopia, the owner of the tree will get the fruit to the market,” says Tilahun Liben, an Ethiopian refugee. “And when there was fruit on the ground, people would pick it up and use it. There’s no waste.”

Eiswerth can’t provide money to the gleaners, many of whom live in poverty. But she offers “gift cards, clothing vouchers, donated toiletries, referrals to grief and trauma programs, and, of course, hundreds of pounds of fruit.”

Iskashitaa’s refugees come from five of the original seven countries covered by President Trump’s immigration ban. “All the refugees I know who have come here, they all learned how to work hard. They are living peacefully with no trauma in a free country. They say ‘God Bless America,’ because America provides a lot for us.” Liben says. “But also, we are the ones who bless America with our hard work.”