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.

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.

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

Canning for a Cause: Let’s Preserve 11 December,2010Sarah Henry

  • This is a fantastic model. People banding together to use their skills and time to make sure food gets to people who need it, instead of rotting. You can’t get much better than that.

  • Terrific post with very useful information. Thanks. Although I don’t live in the Bay Area, sounds like somebody needs to clone that program in Tucson, which already has active community gardening, gleaning and native foods programs.

  • I love the idea of canning for a cause!

  • How inspiring! No, I don’t know of anything similar in my area, but this compels me to take a look. I also like the idea of food building community through activities like this.

  • What a wonderful way to bring people together and help less fortunate people at the same time.

  • Pam

    What an awesome story about meeting the needs of the community and bringing people together through food and the art of canning!

  • Merr

    This is such an incredible use of talent and goodwill (and fresh food!).

  • This is so inspiring. We have a movement in our town to support the local food pantry where demand is up 40% since last year.

  • What a great project all around–that you can gather with friends, spend time making a quality product and then help others. I wish there were something like this in my area. I’ll have to look around.

  • What a fantastic effort! I love that it harks back to a time when foods were “put up” and nothing was wasted, as well as the fact that it’s a super cause that helps people. Sometimes we have apple crops here in Michigan that can’t be sold, and it’d be great if a similar program could be set up.

  • I love events where the community bands together. And I’m very big on volunteering. This is a wonderful post and it’s something that should set an example for other communities in the U.S.

  • Contact “Let’s Preserve” –
    eamil: letspreserve@yahoo.com
    group site: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/letspreserve/
    FaceBook: Letspreserve group
    Petaluma Bounty: http://www.petalumabounty.org/

    Let’s Preserve … your community . . .

    If you are not able to participate in a Let’s Preserve event in Sonoma … start one in your community.

  • I love hearing about this program — especially during a holiday season that’s bleak for so many people. Thanks so much for writing about it.

  • Susan

    Wow – this sounds like such a cool program combining food and philanthropy. I don’t know about anything similar here in Boston, but we did just have an annual fundraising event called Eat Your Heart Out. It combines local bands and up-and-coming chefs for a one-night fundraiser.

  • What an amazing initiative – food banks are in dire straits here in NJ, and yet so much food goes to waste because the pantries can’t use it as donated.

  • Gerry

    Yes, it was fun and learned a little about canning. Thanks to Merrilee for coordinating this.


Sarah Henry

Sarah Henry hails from Sydney, Australia, where she grew up eating lamingtons, Vegemite, and prawns (not shrimp) on the barbie (barbecue). Sarah has called the Bay Area home for the past two decades and remembers how delighted she was when a modest farmers’ market sprouted in downtown San Francisco years ago. As a freelance writer Sarah has covered local food people, places, politics, culture, and news for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, California, San Francisco, Diablo, Edible East Bay, Edible Marin & Wine Country, and Berkeleyside. A contributor to the national food policy site Civil Eats, her stories have also appeared in The Atlantic, AFAR, Gilt Taste, Ladies’ Home Journal, Grist, Shareable, and Eating Well. An epicurean tour guide for Edible Excursions, Sarah is the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale and tweets under that moniker too.

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