With dozens of young people gathering every Friday night at The Ark, First Baptist’s drop-in centre, many from families who rely on The Salvation Army for assistance, Stewart and Taylor thought it would be a good idea to join forces.
“We wanted to connect with youth through active work in our community,” explains Stewart, “particularly with The Salvation Army Community Food Bank.”
“We live in the rich and fertile South Okanagan Valley,” Taylor says, “so we discussed how we could give youth an opportunity to learn how our beautiful valley provides for us and how that relates to God’s creation and creation care.”
That was the starting point for Fresh From the Farm, a gleaning and preserving program for youth aged 10-16 operated through a partnership of The Salvation Army and First Baptist Church, that supplies fruits and vegetables for distribution through the Army’s food bank. The program also provides a much-needed childcare option for children whose parents struggle to make ends meet.
“They consider The Salvation Army a safe place,” explains Stewart, “and they trust that their youth will be kept busy—and loved.”
From the earliest days of the program, Stewart has fostered relationships with local farmers who let her know when the time is right for the young people to get started.
“Everything revolves around the farmers,” she says. “We never know from one year to the next when cherries are going to be harvested, when peaches are going to be ripe, let alone when the farmers are going to be finished with their own crop and tell us that we can come in and glean the rest. It’s really a gift from God that they allow me and a group of children onto their farms during their high pressure time. This wouldn’t work without their generosity.”
“I like going to the orchards to pick fruit and to the big farms to pick carrots, tomatoes and peppers,” says 13-year-old Jenna Ronnmark, who has spent three summers with Fresh From the Farm.
“I loved the trips to all the farms,” adds Angela Patrick, 15. “We learned how the farmers grow their crops. That was my favourite part.”
Fruits and vegetables are also harvested from the Penticton Community Garden and the Army’s own garden, which was started four years ago to supply produce for programs at The Salvation Army, including cooking classes for clients of the food bank.
“Fresh From the Farm participants are very involved in the Army’s garden, right from the point of spring planting,” explains Stewart.
Thanks to a host of community and Salvationist volunteers, most of whom are retired seniors, the young people are not alone in their efforts.
“Just south of Penticton is the Similkameen Valley, the organic capital of Canada,” Stewart says. “There are so many food-wise mentors here who have a rich knowledge, and the time as retirees, to share it with our young people. We’ve never had a shortage of volunteers willing to spend their time with us.”
An added bonus of Fresh From the Farm is the bridging of the generation gap that exists between young people and seniors.
“A lot can be learned when you’re working side by side trying to fill your bucket with blueberries,” explains Stewart. “Trust and relationships are built when your hands are busy and your mind is free. There’s a sense of productivity and goodwill, and a feeling of fulfilment after a hard day’s work. The young people feel good that they have helped and are proud of what they have done.”
“I love working with more experienced people,” says Tessa Hartmann, 12. “They are very kind and generous.”
After the Harvest
Since it began in 2012, Fresh From the Farm has expanded beyond caring for the Army’s garden and harvesting fruits and vegetables. Utilizing the community kitchen located at Penticton Community Church, Fresh From the Farm provides lessons in canning, dehydrating, juicing, freezing and more, all under the supervision of mentors.
“A small portion of each harvest is reserved to be used by the young people,” explains Stewart, “and then they take home what they have preserved to their families.”
“Trying to make a pie crust for the first time is my favourite memory,” says Ronnmark. “It was hilarious trying to make an apple pie.”
It is hoped that this hands-on nutrition education will continue to impact the young people long after they have moved on from the program. In addition to helping to feed their families, Fresh From the Farm participants can earn their FOODSAFE Level 1 certification at no personal cost if they harvest five times or more for the food bank. They can also take training in first aid and CPR.
“Many are the children and grandchildren of the food bank clients that we serve,” Stewart says. “We would be so happy if this program makes a difference for these kids, so that they won’t need to access the food bank in the future.”
To help offset the cost of this part of the program, Fresh From the Farm is grateful for financial support from a number of sponsors, including the Community Foundation of South Okanagan Similkameen, the Kitchen Creations Fund through Food Banks Canada, the RBC Foundation, McCains and summer job grants.
As Stewart engages in the sixth season of Fresh From the Farm, she encourages others to seek out opportunities to make a difference in the lives of young people.
“Reach out to other church organizations who are doing things with youth,” she advises. “Engage with the youth—talk to them—about what they want to do and how they want to be involved.” She suggests talking to parents and connecting with programs already in operation, such as a food bank or thrift store, that could be expanded to include young people.
“Fresh From the Farm was started to engage young people in the work of our community,” she concludes, “and with the mission of The Salvation Army.” By God’s provision, they are doing that, one fruit and vegetable at a time.
Feature photo: Judy Heisler