As a girl growing up in Mississippi, Marvie Johnson, 74, watched her grandmother tend a garden full of peaches, plums, and persimmons, canning almost everything, even jelly made out of peach skins.
Those skills are being rediscovered, and Baxter Community Center is leading the renaissance in its southeast Grand Rapids neighborhood.
On a Thursday evening in September, Marvie and five others are canning salsa, and the air is sweet with the smell boiling tomatoes. Tomatoes are skinned and cored, onions and peppers are chopped, and all the ingredients are simmered together before being sealed in their jars.
The average American family wastes $1,600 in food each year, while an astounding 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten. Though Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank’s process of reclaiming surplus food can cut down on large-scale food waste, an approach like Baxter’s is needed to help families make the most of their meals.
“I garden, so I wanted to learn how to do this,” says Derek Leshan as he ladles salsa into new jars. Canning appeals to him because it’s healthy, cheap, and easy to do. His stepdaughter, 10, is getting into it too.
Baxter’s Around the Table canning class is led by staff member Danielle Veldman and volunteer Debbie Vickers.
Participants take home a dozen jars of food they’ve canned themselves after each session. If they maintain steady attendance, they receive a graduation present: their own set of canning equipment.
“The only way that’s possible is through Feeding America and donations,” says Danielle. Almost all the produce comes from Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank; Baxter’s donors supply the equipment.
Through this course and others offered at Baxter, Tunia Ward has learned to appreciate a wider variety of foods. Canning them allows her to stockpile healthy options for lean times.
“Until I came here, I never liked beets,” she says. As a result of the class, Tunia says she now wastes much less food because she knows how to prepare it.
While still a rarity, says the Food Bank’s Jude Smith, classes like Baxter’s have already made an impact. Some of last year’s students have even started their own vegetable gardens, she says.
“I think this is a real positive step in the right direction.”
Recipe: Zesty Salsa
10 cups chopped, seeded, peeled, cored tomatoes (6 lbs)
5 cups chopped and seeded sweet peppers (2 lbs)
5 cups chopped onions (1 ½ lbs)
2 ½ cups chopped and seeded hot peppers (1 lb)
3 cloves minced garlic
2 tablespoons chopped, fresh cilantro
3 teaspoons salt
1 ¼ cups cider vinegar
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce (optional)
Combine all ingredients in large saucepot. Add hot pepper sauce if desired. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Ladle hot salsa into jars, leaving ½-inch headspace. Wipe lids clean, adjust two-piece caps. Process 20 minutes in a boiling water canner. Water must be boiling for entire 20 minutes.
Note: When cutting or seeding hot peppers, wear rubber gloves to prevent hands from being burned!
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