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Sunday, February 17 , 2019, 6:36 am | Fair 49º


Partnership Helps Bring Local Produce-Picking Project to Fruition

Unity Shoppe and the new Santa Barbara chapter of Backyard Harvest glean and distribute fruits and vegetables from private homes to help needy families.

Backyard Harvest garden coordinator Nicola Gordan fills crates with fruit picked off trees in the backyard of a homeowner. The new Santa Barbara chapter of Backyard Harvest works with Unity Shoppe to distribute fresh fruit to needy families. (Mollie Helmuth / Noozhawk photo)

[Editor’s Note: To take a poll on how you use your backyard produce, click here.]

Walking into the Unity Shoppe’s distribution center is like entering some sort of magical childhood fantasy. For starters, the entryway and front lobby are set up to look like a pirate’s cove. There’s even a portal and treasure chest, with a mangy Johnny Depp perched on top.

With its humble beginnings stretching back to 1917, the Unity Shoppe is a nonprofit distribution facility for families facing financial difficulties. Everything provided to clients is new, ranging from clothing to soccer balls to food..

Executive Director Tom Reed says getting help from any agency can be a difficult step for families. The goal of the Unity Shoppe is to create a dignified approach to aid for parents and a care-free, fun experience for kids.

“That’s why we have shopping carts,” Reed said. “It’s a part of the parents getting to choose what they provide for their kids.”

Because much of the food the Unity Shoppe distributes is donated, most dollar donations go toward back-to-school items, clothing and other basic needs. However, Reed says that with the economy in a downturn, food donations have diminished and money is often used to purchase groceries instead of merchandise.

“Clientele went up 10 percent this year. If it only goes up 10 percent next year, we will be surprised,” Reed said. “More people are showing up and donations don’t track.”

One of the most difficult things the Unity Shoppe provides is also one of the most necessary: fresh produce. That’s where Doug Hagensen comes in, founder of the new Santa Barbara branch of a nonprofit project called Backyard Harvest.

Hagensen has partnered under the distributing expertise of the Unity Shoppe in a quest to provide every family with fresh produce, all collected from Santa Barbara County’s backyards.

Doug Hagensen, founder of the Santa Barbara chapter of Backyard Harvest, collects fruit that otherwise might go to waste. (Mollie Helmuth / Noozhawk photo)

Backyard Harvest has branches in California, Idaho and Washington where volunteers harvest fruit trees and vegetable gardens at private homes. Homeowners register their properties with the local organization and the produce is distributed to shelters and other agencies.

“I was working in construction and started noticing fruit trees in backyards,” Hagensen said. “The idea was born: How can we utilize food more effectively?” After coming up with Backyard Harvest as a name, he went about trying to secure the domain for a Web site.

Hagensen soon realized that someone, Backyard Harvest founder and project coordinator Amy Grey, already had trademarked the name and bought the domain. He investigated the organization only to find that, coincidently, the Idaho-based group was doing exactly what he had envisioned.

“It’s structured so that through licensing (Grey) makes it available to developing charters,” said Hagensen, who quickly went about the task of creating the Santa Barbara branch and getting in touch with Reed to organize a partnership.

Under the umbrella of the Unity Shoppe’s nonprofit status, Hagensen has begun harvesting local produce. He hasn’t recruited a harvesting crew yet, as the project is just starting out, but he plans to eventually draw from the Unity Shoppe’s 1,600 devoted volunteers as well as personal connections. 

Reed has greeted the joint venture with open arms, saying that much of the produce the Unity Shoppe gets is not immediate and therefore sometimes not fresh. “By the time it gets to the food bank and they process it and it is distributed to us, there’s an extra day or two in there,” he said. “Sometimes that makes a difference in whether it’s useful or not.”

Unity Shoppe and Backyard Harvest’s services aren’t strictly distribution. In fact, both programs emphasize the bigger picture. There is overall community growth involved, including volunteers, class groups and senior citizens.

“In this town, there is wide ethnic and economic differences,” Reed said. “We are teaching kids to work together beyond race, creed, color — all that stuff.”

While there’s a lot of fruit to be harvested, coordinator Nicola Gordon plans to start working with people interested in growing garden produce. (Mollie Helmuth / Noozhawk photo)

Hagensen already has been approached by schools in the area interested in accompanying him on a harvesting trip. “They can see where their food comes from,” Hagensen said, “and help by picking up fruit, just so they feel like they are a part of it.”

Fruit trees are the main source of produce for Backyard Harvest in Santa Barbara, but local gardening enthusiast and musician Nicola Gordon, also the garden coordinator for the program, will be building relationships with people interested in growing garden produce for the community.

Hagensen and Reed realize there is a difference in the appearance of backyard fruit. It isn’t the round, shiny produce seen in grocery stores, but “it shares the same nutrients and flavor,” Hagensen says.

Once Backyard Harvest is in full swing, the next vision is to begin a food preparation system within the Unity Shoppe where fruit that can’t be given away can be made into food products, such as preserves.

The idea complements the community-building goal of both programs because it would teach valuable food preparation skills to volunteers. Reed says it may even turn into a retail grocery store, adding, “When you have an opportunity to generate some of your own revenue, donors appreciate that.”

Another dimension Hagensen plans to incorporate is landscape architects. “If someone is remodeling and doing landscaping, we can provide them with nursery stock and plant it for them,” he said.

With the support of the community already evident and some backing from Skyline Construction, Hagensen’s former employer, Reed and Hagensen are thrilled at the visionary partnership that already has begun to come to fruition.

Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at [email protected]

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