Family Fights Hunger By Picking Apples

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Imagine plump loaves of fresh-baked bread falling from the sky, only to be left molding on the ground with no one to gather them.

By comparison, this is what Valeri Marsh and her family observed happening throughout Rim Country when they saw un-harvested apples rotting on the ground each fall.

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Valeri Marsh holds up her 5-year-old daughter, Aliyah, as she picks apples off a tree in Payson. The Marsh family has launched a unique effort to collect apples for hungry families throughout Arizona.

"It just broke my heart to see all these apples rotting on the ground when there are so many hungry people," Marsh said.

What happened in the coming years gave birth to an effort now under way that can engage anyone with willing hands.

"A few years ago our family started asking property owners if we could pick their unwanted apples and take them to people who needed them -- the food bank, Time Out Shelter, senior center, and hungry families in town," Marsh said. "This year, we started picking at the end of September.

"We realized there were so many apples and so many people who were hungry. It was crazy that nobody was getting these apples. I kept thinking there must be something we can do on a larger scale."

One experience that underscored this thought came after Marsh's family had gathered a large number of apples.

"A few weeks ago, my husband, Jon, took a truckload of apples from Payson down to an emergency food bank in Paradise Valley," Marsh explained.

"The director of the food bank said he was so thankful to see him because all they had left on the shelves to offer families that day was onions and bread."

Once she started to make calls, Marsh discovered food banks around the state were experiencing a dire shortage of produce.

"That's when we realized we needed to try to organize an apple-picking campaign," Marsh said.

After discussing the idea with the food bank central agency, an effort began to match apple trees that needed to be picked with people willing to pick them.

Marsh has secured apple drop-off bins in Payson and Pine this season. Payson bins have been placed at Bashas' grocery store in front of the west entrance, and at Safeway on the front sidewalk near the pumpkins. In Pine, a bin will be located at Uncle Tom's Kwik Stop.

United Food Banks asks that the apples be collected in plastic grocery store-style bags. They also ask that people make sure rotten apples do not get into the bags.

Marsh will coordinate volunteer groups who are willing to take a morning or afternoon shift to pick apples over the next two to three weeks while the fruit is still good.

"It's really fun to pick the apples and to know they are going to feed hungry people," said Marsh's 10-year-old daughter, Ariana.

"I like climbing the trees and shaking the branches," said 8-year-old Caleb Marsh.

Working with their mom, the two siblings and two other children picked apples last week in Pine, gathering 6,000 apples in just two hours.

"Those trees were fully loaded -- you could just strip your hands over the branches and they would fall right off," Marsh said.

Marsh, now sometimes called the "apple lady," said people would be amazed at how many apples are available in Rim Country to be harvested that would otherwise go to waste. Their family of six has already gathered more than 20,000 apples in recent weeks.

United Food Banks of Phoenix has committed to come up to the Rim Country to unload the public apple bins each week and distribute the fruit where it is most needed. If you have trees with apples ready to be picked, or if you have a group interested in picking apples, call Marsh at (928) 472-7198.

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