In the summer of 2011, two East Central women, both refugees, came up with the idea of harvesting neighborhood fruit that otherwise wouldn’t be used, and donating it to the community.
Nou Vang and Ma Win Tain started small, hanging fliers for what they called the East Central Neighborhood Urban Fruit Tree Harvest in grocery stores and reaching out to neighbors. They did some of the harvesting and volunteers signed up to pick apples and plums, cherries, whatever was available.
This summer, the program harvested more than 5,800 pounds of fruit and vegetables – 3,000 pounds more than last year. And every plum and apple was donated to people who otherwise may not have seen a lot of fruit on their dinner tables.
“We had 52 volunteers this year, and the program is growing,” said Susan Hales, director of Refugee Connections Spokane. “We just had a small farm in the Valley call and say they have acorn squash they’d like to donate.”
It’s a simple concept: Property owners volunteer their fruit trees to be part of the program and volunteers come out and harvest the fruit, which is then distributed on alternating Saturdays at East Central Community Center and at Liberty Park Apartments.
“The refugees said they didn’t want people to have to prove need,” Hales said. “They wanted anyone to just be able to pick up produce.”
On Saturday, volunteers, refugees and supporters celebrated the end of the season with a harvest party at East Central Community Center.
From the beginning the program, now called the Refugees’ Harvest Program, was about the refugees giving back to Spokane and helping them deal with isolation and culture shock that sometimes come with moving to a new country.
“We want the refugees to know the neighbors,” Vang told The Spokesman-Review last year. “That we are OK with each other. We are thankful to live in Spokane because it’s a safe place. We want to give back.”
An estimated 1,700 people received free fruit and vegetables from the program this year.
As something new, the Refugees’ Harvest Program also received donations of fruits and vegetables that were left over at the end of the Thursday Market on South Perry Street.
“The vendors were very helpful,” Hales said.
Spokane Regional Health District and Rotary Club 21 helped fund the program and Rosauers donated cold storage when needed.
Hales said refugee volunteers come from many different nations, including Myanmar, Laos, Tanzania and Bhutan.
“We are very excited about expanding into different refugee communities,” Hales said. “And yes, we are doing it again next year. We are committed to this project.”