Picking fruit with a purpose

By Jake Toole/El Inde

The University of Arizona Community Garden was an array of green last October. Corn was the most identifiable crop, towering over the rest of the green vegetables. 

Barbara Eiswerth, the director of Iskashitaa, a nonprofit that works to alleviate food insecurity in refugee and non-refugee communities in Tucson by harvesting unused fruit trees in the community, was teaching a volunteer about an eggplant bush they had planted at the garden. 

When Eiswerth first founded the organization, it was not called Iskashitaa and it had nothing to do with refugees. It was a youth program that recruited young people to help Eiswerth map out the locations of fruit trees in the neighborhood. This was so that the fruit could be potentially harvested to alleviate food insecurity in the community. 

After three or four years into this program, a colleague approached Eiswerth to ask her to include Somali Bantu youth in the program. 

At the time, all she could ask her colleague was “What’s a Somali Bantu?” But she would soon learn about the ethnic minority in Somalia who had been persecuted during the Somali civil war of 1991-2008 and forced to flee their homes, becoming refugees. 

Eiswerth worked with those Somali Bantu youth for the first couple of years. Since then, she has worked with more and more refugees from countries from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, expanding the organization and renaming it Iskashitaa: which is the Somali and Maay Maay (the main language of the Somali Bantu ethnicity) word for “working together cooperatively.” 

Since it was founded in 2003, the organization has worked with 38 different ethnic groups. 

Iskashitaa has two main goals: to supplement a lack of produce available in many Tucson communities where one in four people suffer from hunger, and to address the barriers that many refugees face when relocating in Tucson, such as the social isolation and anxiety that they feel coming to a new country from intense situations such as war and persecution.

Today Iskashitaa harvests about 100,000 to 150,000 pounds of produce a year, both from native plants and introduced produce such as oranges and lemons. The fruit is often picked from fruit trees in a person’s yard who can’t pick their produce anymore such as an elderly person or someone who is just willing to let it be harvested by volunteers. Eiswerth said they used to only harvest a few thousand pounds at the beginning. 

Iskashitaa distributes 60% of their harvests to organizations in Tucson that fight food insecurity such as food banks, soup kitchens, schools and most recently to rural communities including Nogales, Ajo, Pascua Yaqui, Hopi, Navajo, Tohono O’odham and Cochise County.

Refugee volunteers also take some of the harvest home with them to share with their families and neighbors. 

The current COVID-19 pandemic, however, has affected many of the ways Iskashitaa normally operates. 

Many of Iskashitaa’s volunteers are refugees and elderly people who tend to have underlying conditions which make them susceptible to COVID-19. This means that they have lost a lot of their volunteers, forcing them to change the way they harvest. 

Instead of planning large harvests on Wednesdays and Fridays, they now harvest whenever volunteers can and in small groups where volunteers can safely, socially distance. 

It has also been important to help educate the refugees they serve about social distancing during this time, emphasizing important health practices such as hand washing. 

To keep with social distancing rules, they have held all their programs at the Community Garden, specifically their Garden Art Program, which was created during the pandemic.

According to Eiswerth, the amount of food being harvested has gone down due to the pandemic, but the need for food has increased.

“We went from delivering to a couple apartment complexes to delivering to over a dozen apartment complexes with refugees and non-refugees,” Eiswerth said.

COVID-19 has affected refugees in Tucson, in particular, who have lost jobs and lost working hours across the board.

Social isolation caused by the pandemic is difficult for many individuals — especially single refugees who have gone through traumatizing events before coming to the U.S. and now must face their anxiety and trauma alone. 

The lack of food, sanitation materials and the discontinuation of citizenship and ESL classes has also made life harder for refugees during this period.

Sitting at a bench underneath a fruit tree at the U of A Community Garden, Eiswerth said that she hopes Iskashitaa will “flourish,” despite the continuing pandemic as it makes the right choices to adapt.

“I think there’s more focus to local food and more focus on food waste now than in the recent past,” Eiswerth said. She believes that this is because many people in Pima County have never seen an empty shelf in the grocery store until the pandemic. She hopes this will drive people to think more about how they interact with food and that they live in a community where people around them struggle with food every day.