It all started around three years ago with a handshake and a load of day-old bananas.
Today, the Save The Bananas project is a local enterprise that collects unprocessed, day-old produce, along with boxed and canned goods for widespread distribution to neighbors in need throughout the Harrisburg area.
The catalyst that sparked the organization was a personal chef’s quest for overripe bananas.
For Lee Casher, proprietor of Lee’s Good Eats, the mottled fruit wasn’t easy to find. Markets usually remove bananas that over-ripen from sale shelves and mark them off for compost or waste. Overripe bananas weren’t waste to Lee Casher, however. The soft fruit gave a perfect texture to her healthy breakfast cookie recipe favored by clients.
To maintain an ample supply, Casher coordinated a deal with a major supermarket to pick up regular donations of day-old bananas withdrawn from store display. Before long, however, she had more free bananas than she possibly could use. That, in turn, gave her a new idea that turned out to be very, um, fruitful.
“The Save The Bananas project name came about because that was my mission when I knew the ripened bananas were being discarded,” Casher said. “I knew they were an all-in-one healthy food and better they were donated to a place of need than be composted or thrown away.”
As a 2012 graduate of Leadership Harrisburg Area, Casher was ready to put her management training and experience to work by distributing day-old produce to community members in need.
“I realized, when I was going through a divorce and volunteering at the Salvation Army and Downtown Daily Bread, that this could be me,” she said. “I realized during this difficult time that we are all only one step away from being in need. All it can take is divorce, a medical issue, a job loss, an unfortunate family situation, and any one of us can see our lives change in a heartbeat.”
Soon, Casher’s initial effort to assist hungry locals expanded to include a wider network of contributors of not only day-old bananas, but a variety of in-season produce that vendors considered past shelf life. Current contributors include the PA Open Air Farmers Market, Dobbs Produce and River Road Produce & Garden Center.
“Lee has various vegetables at the edge of expiration, but they’re still good quality,” said volunteer Bridget Abbott. “We sort and deliver them. She’s very meticulous about what goes out.”
Abbott is part of a small team of volunteers who regularly assist Casher with picking up, sorting and distributing produce and other goods for Save The Bananas. Also working the team are Joe Dux, Kathy Bronstein and Larry Spitz. Friend Janet Foreman fills in when needed.
“I love giving back,” volunteer Spitz said. “The main thing I like is knowing that people who don’t have fresh produce and don’t have the money for it are receiving it so they can have a healthy diet.”
Casher and her team regularly deliver produce donations to several community distribution sites throughout the area, including Epiphany Lutheran Church, Gospel Fellowship Church, Christ Lutheran Church, Shalom House, Susquehanna Harbor Safe Haven, Market Square Friends and the Giving Pantry projects of Grace Lutheran Church.
Other recipients are the Elder Initiative at Paxton Place and Presbyterian Apartments, Bridge of Hope Harrisburg Area, Bethesda Mission and St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. Save The Bananas volunteers fill Youth 10X Better Ministries mini pantries at three locations in Harrisburg.
Recently, the organization has begun accepting cash donations for the purchase of fresh dairy products and boxed/canned food items to distribute to families in need. Casher initiated that effort earlier this year.
“I saw all the lines of people waiting for food (donations), and they ran out of food during the (COVID-19) virus,” she said. “When I saw all that, I thought, ‘this should not be.’”
To volunteer or donate produce, boxed and canned goods or funds to the Save The Bananas Project, contact Lee Casher through Facebook private messenger via Lee’s Good Eats.