UBC grad student’s gleaning project engages community
Life is a juggling act for Casey Hamilton: Social entrepreneur. Anti-poverty advocate. Urban sustainability activist. Dietitian. Backyard fruit harvester.
Two years ago, she founded the Okanagan Tree Fruit Project, salvaging the excess production from backyard fruit trees.
From an initial pick of 5,000 pounds in 2012, the Okanagan Fruit Tree Project reaped 17,500 pounds last year, and this year’s tally surpassed 30,000 pounds of fruit and produce by mid-October. The volunteer base has swelled to nearly 400 pickers and a juicing operation was added last year for fundraising.
“I’m a passion-project person. I think it’s important to put your efforts where your heart is,” says Hamilton. “I needed to do something tangible. I think I have always been driven by helping people.”
Hamilton is pursuing a master of science degree in urban agricultural policy at the Okanagan campus. The hyphenate extraordinaire is also a dietitian with Campus Health and a research coordinator with the Campus Health VOICE and Wellbeing projects. She established the Central Okanagan Food Policy Council in 2010 to ease poverty in BC’s Interior by developing resource sharing among non-profits.
Hamilton is equally adept working with students, pitching suits for business advice, or picking apples.
“Her professional training as a dietitian, coupled with her graduate studies research on policy change is a dynamite combination,” says Assoc. Prof. Alan Davidson of the School of Health and Exercise Sciences.
Hamilton consulted a former business analyst with Tetley Tea and Canada Safeway, tapped into expertise about food security issues, and got a project coordinator on board. The Okanagan Fruit Tree Project was soon in business as a structured non-profit enterprise with a board of directors and a mission to fill a horn of plenty for the poor.
Like a well-tended garden, the community gleaning initiative thrives. Its harvest adds valuable sources of food for the community, increasing the availability of healthy fruit for those in need, reducing food waste, and promoting local food security and volunteerism; 30 community non-profit groups benefit from juice sales and fruit donations. With sponsorships and support from the Okanagan Changemakers social enterprise forum, Hamilton’s efforts garnered $23,000 in operating funds.
“I want to help people understand they have opportunities in life. You show them by doing, instead of just talking about it,” she says. By blending social activism with scholarly inquiry, the Okanagan Fruit Tree Project has also become a policy plank in Hamilton’s master’s thesis.
Davidson, her faculty supervisor, says there is a well-established tradition of action research and a parallel tradition of critical research in academia. “I encourage students to engage in research that they personally find meaningful, that they are interested in, and that they believe is important,” he says. “Casey is a very good example of a student doing just that.”
Hamilton co-taught a course on health policy, bringing her experience in advocacy and coalition building to a group of senior undergraduate students.
“Her energy, enthusiasm and sincerity are infectious and went a long way toward ensuring the seminar opened up new vistas for students,” says Davidson.
A 2007 BSc graduate in food nutrition and health from UBC’s Vancouver campus, Hamilton then worked for Interior Health in Kelowna as a dietitian.
She decided to tackle poverty by analysing cities and urban landscapes, identifying barriers and devising novel policy ideas to overcome them. Hamilton sees BC’s Central Interior as a food source to benefit those struggling with the most basic elements of survival – food security and a roof over their head.
“Instead of teaching people to eat healthy diets, I want to work at creating environmental supports to live a healthy life. I want to take part in changing the system,” she says.
Her sights are firmly set to build the Okanagan Fruit Tree Project into a self-sustaining organization, following graduation next June. Already this year, the Okanagan Fruit Tree Project has grown to include Penticton, and other communities are waiting to be added.
“I see nothing but growth for this. We haven’t even reached the tip of the iceberg with what we can do.”
Hamilton is also working on the issue of social housing. She is involved with building sustainable housing in Kelowna, in an initiative called the Ethel Street Laneway Project.
Hamilton’s efforts are being recognized. Last month she was presented with the Environmental Leader Award in the Community Leader Awards, sponsored by the Kelowna Capital News, and was nominated to the Kelowna Top Forty Under 40 by the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce and Kelowna Daily Courier, for her community involvement.
“Really, it’s not about me,” says Hamilton. “I just saw a need and organized people to help.”