In the late 1990s, Barbara Eiswerth was working on her Ph.D. in the poverty-stricken villages of Malawi, Africa, and witnessed extreme hunger firsthand. After returning home to Tucson, Arizona, she was overwhelmed by how her neighbors’ abundant fruit trees dropped fresh pecans, figs and grapefruits, only to rot on the sidewalk. “Thousands of trees are using the land, the soil, the nutrients, the precious water to grow fruit and then it goes to waste,” the vivacious, bright-eyed Eiswerth says.
Remembering the impoverished villages of Malawi, Eiswerth launched a new project through the Tucson Youth Work Enhancement program in 2002, where teens from a local high school learned about food resources. They mapped 162 homes with 296 fruit-producing trees, then collected the unwanted fruit and redistributed it in local farmers’ markets and to soup kitchens.
A year later, Eiswerth met Bantu refugees from Somalia who had just immigrated to Tucson. She began volunteering to help these families create roots in their new country. “How do you become a new American without ever making an American friend?” she asks. It was then that inspiration struck: the high school students could help the refugees learn English, the Somali Bantu would share their native harvesting expertise with the students, and cross-cultural ties would be created within the community. The fruit-collecting project flourished into the nonprofit Iskash*taa Refugee Harvesting Network. Iskash*taa (eesh’-kah-shee-tah) embodies its name, which means Working Together Cooperatively in the Somali dialect of Maay Maay.
Eiswerth recalls a moment Somali Bantu boys unexpectedly grabbed mesquite beans off a tree and started chewing them. “We were taken aback at first,” she says. “But they knew they were sweet and nutritious.” Rich in iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium and calcium, mesquite beans were a “famine food,” used for nourishment during times of true hunger or starvation. Today, in addition to collecting nearly 30,000 pounds of excess fruit a year in Tucson and providing it to hungry families, Iskash*taa makes mesquite flour and participates in mesquite-pancake breakfasts to honor its Somali friends.