Food Access, Farm 2 School, and Gleaning Team Support
Benji Astrachan met me in the old courthouse library in Port Angeles. Benji seemed fidgety and I could guess he would rather be in action mode than sitting talking to me. He is a multi-talented individual with a passion for food access and making things happen.
He harkens from Portland, Maine and he went to McGill College in Montreal, Canada where he studied a combination of World Religion, German and International Development. He also took a one-off class on food access and social justice. This shined light on a hidden gem and had him wishing he had studied food systems and agriculture.
Post-college Benji worked for the Maine Huts & Trails, a hut to hut trail system for hikers. He worked caring for the huts and also cooking in them for the hikers. This experience opened his eyes to some remarkable off grid technologies.
His first full farm season started at a job outside of lovely Burlington, Vermont working for the Vermont Youth Conseration Corps as an ‘Americorps program healthcare/farmshare leader.’ He led a youth crew of 10th-12th graders who worked daily at the farm. They packed 450 boxes of produce each week to be distributed across the northern part of Vermont. The CSA boxes were prescribed by doctors and costs were covered by the state. Imagine that! Patients were prescribed CSA boxes.
Benji’s passion for leadership in getting organic produce to people in need continues. After that position he looked all over the country at a nation-wide Americorp program called ‘Harvest Against Hunger.’ That’s what brought him to the Olympic Peninsula. He took a position at the Clallam County WSU Extension office working through that Americorps program, building on the extant gleaning program.
The gleaning program in Clallam has been struggling with how to make best use of all the produce it brings in. The Food Banks get overwhelmed with fall fruit harvests. Benji took initiative to seek out more distribution sites and to create more avenues to getting the food processed or preserved so it could be used throughout the year. In his own words, “I wanted the outcome of the gleaning to be more efficient, less wasteful and less of an apple-infused headache.”
Benji is perfecting what he calls “the art of distribution,” he is proud to say he has “massively widened the scope of where folks can get free food.”
The current project he takes great pride in is the Little Free Pantry program. He joined forces with the group ‘Compassion Clallam County,’ and developed a program with co-leader Hilary Powers to improve access to free food by creating charming pantries that are scattered around the county. It is kindred to the little free library’s that are community managed except they are a place to take and give food.
The cultural shifts Benji is driven by are in the direction of destigmatizing free food and making free food more normalized. For him, success looks like changing attitudes about how we support each other.
He shared with me that there is a current shift from a model based on giving ‘food as a charity’ to a focus on ‘food as a right.’ He spoke to how free food is a bridge towards a mutual aid ideal, a radical trust ideal. He would like to see a focus on communities seeing the gaps and the needs of the food insecure and filling them from within the community. He reminded me that in Clallam County 1 in 4 children are considered food insecure.
Towards this end of food sovereignty, Benji created a gleaning program at a local vegetable farm. He says “I am the guy who fills the back of his truck up to the roof with locally gleaned produce and brings it to the Food Bank or redistributes it to Little Free Pantries.” Did I mention he loves cooking? Yah, and he says he also loves eating!
He tells me, “I am grateful I get to do a job where there is a lot of food and the better I do at my job, the better food options will be for me and for everyone else.”
Benji also spends a portion of his time supporting teachers and volunteers who are running school gardens. “We are trying to improve the planning efforts for schools, many school districts are doing great work, and more regional planning would be beneficial for them.”
The work of Leah Penniman has inspired him, check out her Soul Fire Farm online and her book Farming While Black.
His superpowers of extraversion and being networked in the county have given him the opportunity to take on the role of food connector and distributor, his work has allowed him to jump across extension programs in his various food access efforts. He has brought lots of players together to strengthen access.
Check out this current resource list of access points for free food (will be linked to the doc.), another project Benji has contributed to the community.
We are grateful for Benji’s work at WSU. Thank you Benji!
To communicate with Benji you can reach him at email@example.com