The Kearsarge region is one of three regions working with UNH Extension to help strengthen the health and well-being of its communities, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2021, partners in the Kearsarge region have been coming together to create action around thriving, resilient communities. This alliance of community partners has since grown into the Kearsarge Community Network (KCN).
The coalition has prioritized action around reducing isolation and increasing connection to community. According to the recent New London Hospital 2021 Community Health Needs Assessment, about one in every four respondents were currently experiencing loneliness or loss of connection to faith or social groups as a result of the societal impacts from COVID-19. The Kearsarge Community Network, under the guidance of local coordinator Carol Conforti-Adams, saw an opportunity in leveraging existing resources and events to promote connection.
During the fall of 2021, members of the KCN organized several events to harvest excess produce, also known as gleaning. What began with picking apples in a neighbor's yard has grown into a collection of gleaning collaborations, offering multigenerational engagement, and providing fresh, local produce to pantries around the community.
The initial gleaning event came about from conversation with a neighbor who didn't know what to do with the abundance of apples growing in their backyard trees. After talking with some members of the KCN, an event was organized connecting third-year nursing students from Colby-Sawyer College with the opportunity to harvest these apples. Students from the Community and Public Health Nursing class harvested about 25 bushels of apples. According to Ann Fournier, Associate Professor at Colby-Sawyer College (also a member of the KCN and volunteer with Kearsarge Neighborhood Partners), this event provided her students with the opportunity to directly relate engagement with community members to health outcomes.
Students from other classes at Colby-Sawyer College, including Fournier's class, Won't You Be My Neighbor, participated in a variety of other intergenerational gleaning opportunities. The apple trees right on campus were harvested by freshmen students alongside preschoolers from the Windy Hill preschool. They worked together to press the apples into cider and were "wide-eyed" over the experience, seeing the instant gratification from their work, according to Andy Jeffrey, a member of the Kearsarge Community Network (also a volunteer with the Kearsarge Food Hub and Kearsarge Neighborhood Partners). From helping preschoolers pick apples to harvesting potatoes in the community and pulling out "treasures," Fournier says these experiences have been transformative for her students.
Fournier further describes these experiences as dropping a "pebble in the pond and there are all these ripples." The ripples have resulted in lasting effects. She believes these opportunities elicit a true sense of being connected. The reduction of isolation stays with people because of that one powerful moment; students will remember that feeling and carry it with them, recognizing they don't stand alone. "The more we recognize that, the stronger we become," reflects Fournier.
Some of the apples from these initial gleans were also utilized in a local community event, the Bradford Celebration Day. The Kearsarge Food Hub, a partner of the KCN, processed some of the apples into cider prior to the event and during the event provided fresh cider donuts. Carol Conforti-Adams and other members of the KCN provided an apple cider pressing activity for families at the event. Community members were brought together to help press apples and taste fresh cider while learning about the partnerships in action and local resources available.
These gleaning events organized by members of the Kearsarge Community Network brought together local organizations, community members and students resulting in over 3,000 pounds of apples, potatoes and carrots being redirected into local food pantries. Andy Jeffrey highlights the key role that the Kearsarge Food Hub played in the mission, with their connections to local pantries and distribution channels. Through this partnership, the Kearsarge Food Hub was able to distribute the gleaned food to various pantries in the region, ensuring the produce reached community members who needed it.
Being a part of the Kearsarge Community Network "allowed us to focus on something we knew was important," says Jeffrey. Its emphasis on cross-sector collaboration and bringing people together helped make these events happen.
Andy Jeffrey says that all the players in the community helped one another recognize how they can work together around common goals. Coming together around these events have "skyrocketed" the chances of future collaboration as well.
With the success of these events, the Kearsarge Community Network is looking to both continue and expand upon these activities for next fall. As more partners become aware of these efforts, there is opportunity for increased collaboration, explains Jeffrey. Already, MainStreet Warner, Inc. a member of the Kearsarge Community Network, is working towards having a commercial kitchen available for next year's gleaning.
What started with picking apples has grown into a conduit to create new partnerships, deepen existing relationships and bring the larger community together. Fournier emphasizes, "The sooner we recognize how valuable we are to each other, the more well we will be collectively."