Canning for a Cause: Let's Preserve

Lets Preserve group ready to make applesauce
Let's Preserve volunteers get ready to make apple sauce. Photo: Agustin Gutierrez

Foraging with friends and gleaning for good is very much back in vogue. Locally folks like Asiya Wadud of Forage Oakland and Iso Rabins of forageSF, as well as North Berkeley Harvest, PUEBLO Urban Youth Harvest in Oakland, and Anna Chan (aka The Lemon Lady) in Clayton have that covered.

And D.I.Y. canning is also au courant, with Bay Area cookbook authors like Vanessa Barrington encouraging urban homesteaders to put up provisions in their pantry.

Now comes canning for a cause. The Sonoma County group Let's Preserve a community effort to continue old-fashioned (now newly chic) food traditions, make good use of excess produce, and help those in need.

This past harvest season in Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, and Petaluma thousands of pounds of gleaned apples, tomatoes, and quince were preserved and donated to local food pantries, in an effort, says one organizer, to close the gap between waste and want. Apples and tomatoes were canned for sauce, the quince became filling for empanadas that were frozen for future use.

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Chef Merrilee Olson
Chef Merrilee Olson. Photo: Agustin Gutierrez

Merrilee Olson, who runs her own Sebastapol-based food business PRESERVEsonoma, didn't grow up hungry but her family needed help to put food on the table. Raised by a single mom, who supported three kids on a state salary in Lincoln, Nebraska, food stamps frequently helped to provide dinner. Now a professional chef who works with local farmers and artisan food and wine clients, Olson wanted to find a way to give back through food.

She teamed up with Judy Christensen from Slow Harvest in Healdsburg and Elissa Rubin-Mahon of Artisan Preserves in Forestville and last summer offered a training workshop for volunteers who want to galvanize their community to preserve surplus produce.

Last month, she led a group of volunteers who peeled, cut, cooked, and canned hundreds of pounds of apples to benefit the COTS Petaluma Kitchen.

Food pantries will accept preserved products that have been processed in a commercial kitchen under the supervision of someone who is food-safety certified, says Olson.

Nobody doubts the need is out there. NPR reported this week that the number of people on food stamps hit a new all-time high; as of September nearly 43 million people were using the program, according to data released this week. "Food insecurity is reaching frightening levels," says Olson. "We believe we can make a difference in our communities by preserving and making healthy food available where it's needed."

Last month, KQED's Forum addressed hunger in the Bay Area. In San Francisco, one of every five children is at risk of going hungry and the numbers are similar in other local counties. During this holiday season, food bank and soup kitchen operators are reporting a spike in the number of families that are seeking food.

Let's Preserve apple sauce on its way to needy homes.
Let's Preserve apple sauce on its way to needy homes. Photo: Jennie Kimmel

"I'd love to see every community in the Bay Area doing its own preserving and feeding their neighbors in need," says Olson, who notes that groups as far away as Minneapolis have been inspired by the Let's Preserve model to can food for the needy. She also points to Anya Fernald's Commando Canning events, Yes We Can Food, in Oakland as a local example of community canning.

In the future, Olson would like to include other preservation methods, such as pickling, drying, and curing, to ensure that good produce -- including vegetables -- finds its way to the underserved. She'd also like to teach families in need preservation techniques so they can can for themselves.

Clearly, community canning events do good. They're also fun. "We get volunteers from 18 on up -- at our last event we had eight young adults from the Coast Guard -- and everyone had a good time sharing stories in the kitchen and around a table at a potluck afterwards," says Olson. "There's nothing like food to build community."

To learn more about how to start something similar in your area or to sign up for future community canning events, visit Let's Preserve.

Do you know of similar efforts in your area? Let us know below.

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[Thanks to Jennie Kimmel and Agustin Guiterrez for sharing their photos.]

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