Good Cheer! Not just a holiday greeting on the south half of Whidbey Island. Good Cheer is a food bank, thrift shop, garden, and – the folks I’m more familiar with – a group of gleaners: the Good Cheer Gleeful Gleaners, a group of volunteers who harvest fruit from willing residents’ trees.
They had a potluck this afternoon (which is why I’m typing so late on a Saturday night). There were tales of abundance and want that become entwined as free food is delivered to people who need it. It is such a simple idea, and yet, can be so hard to implement when it is more than apples, pears, and plums.
Fruit trees are so popular that the fact that I have four of them in my backyard is considered a selling point. They produce lots of flowers, shade, and sometimes people even eat the fruit. Most times they don’t. The deer and the yellow jackets are happy to devour the rest, but most fruit ripens and falls without being used. If anything, homeowners can find an abundant harvest means a messy lawn. Enough folks pick their crop to spawn a flurry of dessert photos and recipes on facebook every autumn. But many more are mowing apples when they mow the grass.
I’d like to give credit to the person who came up with the idea, but it is an egalitarian group. No one claims the spotlight. (The local paper probably did all the right research.) The idea is simple. Every year, they compile an expanding list of trees. Scouts check for ripeness. A coordinator finds an agreeable owner and then cajoles a small crowd to gather to gather. The fruit is separated into ones that look ready for a store, ones that are more rustic, and ones that are fed to less picky sheep and goats. There’s more than enough supply. There’s more than enough demand. The limiting resources are gleaners and storage.
The part about there being more than enough demand sunk in yesterday. Good Cheer’s Facebook page included a post that included this quote.
“We have served over 1,000 in the month of November and we still have one more day in this month. In the past 2 months, over 110 families who have not used the Food Bank this year or ever before came through our doors to ask for help with food.”
They were talking about the Food Bank, which supplies much more than gleaned fruit. It is an impressive operation. Those numbers impressed me. More than 1,000 families. 110 families that hadn’t used the Food Bank before. That doesn’t sound like a recovering economy.
A few minutes later, a factoid percolated back from memory. After a bit of research I confirmed what I remembered, and I had to respond.
“The number of people you feed just sank in. According to the census, South Whidbey only has about 17,300 people (Clinton + Langley + Freeland + Greenbank). If the average household is close to two people, then you’re feeding over 10% of the south half of the island. Is that true? Amazing, sad, and a mix of emotions.”
Later, the implications expanded. (Unfortunately, I was in the shower, which made it difficult to scribble notes. It is late enough tonight that I had to give up my research foray. Enforced conciseness.)
There’s enough demand for the food. There’s enough supply (especially considering how much food we waste.) There’s always a constraint. For the gleaners it is getting enough people and finding enough storage. (I don’t know if the Food Bank’s overall supply has a surplus, and don’t know their constraints.)
There are too many people without enough. Enough food, clothes, housing. We know there is a demand.
One of Good Cheer’s other success stories are their Thrift Stores. In the dichotomy that is South Whidbey’s economy, there are a lot of people proudly wearing donated clothes. I go there for household stuff that works fine even if it has a scratch or is an off color. Demand and supply meet, but not always in my size.
There are over 14,200,000 vacant homes in America. There are less than 700,000 homeless people. I am glad to see that the number of homeless isn’t higher. What keeps us from finding some way to open a few percent of those vacant homes, or let people build smaller, more affordable houses? So many homes on South Whidbey are vacation homes that neighbors meeting new owners are very likely to ask, “So, are you a snowbird, a weekender, or will you actually live here?” Some neighborhoods, especially in winter, seem to drop to 25% occupancy. Yet, people are living in the woods because they can’t afford housing, and because there is no homeless shelter.
South Whidbey prides itself on being an open and accepting community. Some people living here travel the world giving classes in how to build community. Yet here we are, a microcosm of the American macrocosm. Over 10% of the population needs the Food Bank. How many more need food stamps? How many are homeless? How many are unemployed, or barely getting by? We have the resources. There’s enough wealth of money and spirit. Yet, lack persists.
If a place like South Whidbey, with its wealth of enlightened millionaires and a passionate volunteer population, can’t feed and house everyone then how can anyone expect such a large community as a county, state, or country to succeed?
Maybe what it takes is seeing something like Good Cheer as a very good and necessary first step, something to celebrate; but more importantly, something to replicate and emulate. Here, maybe it can be a model for more than food. In those other places that don’t have food banks, thrift stores, and gleaners, maybe Good Cheer can be cheered as a good example.