Canning for a Cause: Let’s Preserve

by Sarah Henry on December 13, 2010 · 10 comments

in bay area bites,canning & preserving,food events,food foraging,food security

Let's Preserve volunteers/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, Northern California group Let’s Preserve is 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.

Merrilee Olson, Let's Preserve co-creator/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. Her single mother, who was raising three kids on a state salary in Lincoln, Nebraska, frequently used food stamps to provide dinner for her children.  Now a professional chef who works with local farmers and artisan food and wine clients, Olson wanted to find a way with food to give back.

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 gleaned, surplus fruits and vegetables.

Last month, she led a group of volunteers who peeled, cut, cooked, and canned 300 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 last 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 Bay Area 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./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 their 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.

In the future, Olson would like to include other preservation methods — such as curing, pickling, and drying — to ensure that good produce finds its way to the underserved. She’d also like to reach out to families in need to teach them preservation techniques so they can more affordably feed 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 the Let’s Preserve website.

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

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

[This post originally appeared on KQED's Bay Area Bites.]

You might also like:

The Lemon Lady: Feeding the Hungry, One Bag of Produce at a Time
Wild Man Iso Rabins: A New Food Entrepreneur
Vanessa Barrington: The D.I.Y. Delicious Diva
The Urban Homestead: An Old Idea is New Again
Food Foraging 101
Shakirah Simley: Preserving Food, Seeking Justice
Operation Frontline: Teaching the Needy to Cook

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

LAUROSE FELICITY March 7, 2011 at 10:32 am


I manage housewares at the local Cole Hardware store at 29th and Mission Streets. For the last three years, I have expanded all canning products (jars, pots, racks, other tools) to meet a huge rise in canning product needs.

In the last couple of weeks, I have discussed with Happy Girl Kitchen a plan that seems to fit both our needs. I have gotten approval of a special canning product delivery and discount plan for them. As they come to SF to drop off produce, I meet them to provide any canning jars or tools that they need in their upcoming week.

Anyway, I am also reaching out to other local businesses with similar profiles to Cole Hardware (excellent customer and community service) to see if we can be of any help in their canning mission. (I come from a long line of farmer-canner-women in Indiana – have built and maintained green rural homes, etc.)

Let us know if we can be of help, or just say “Hi” so I can be better acquainted with others doing canning work in Northern California.

LauRose at Mission


Sarah Henry March 7, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Hi Laurose,

Glad you shared your news here — and what a great development — seems like a win-win for all concerned.

I’m a fan of Cole Hardware and will stop by next time I’m in the ‘hood and say hi. What days do you work?


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