If you ever doubt that opportunities for Lasallian action are all around you, the story of the partnership between Saint Mary's and Urban Farmers, a nonprofit group that gleans fruit from backyard trees and gives it to the poor, may change your mind.

In 2010, Urban Farmers partnered with SMC's Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) for its periodic Saturday of Service projects, which unleash hundreds of Saint Mary's students to learn the value of Lasallian principles, like concern for the poor and social justice, through hands-on projects.

Suddenly the amount of food the group was able to harvest and donate to local food banks multiplied. But that was just the beginning of the group's experience with the power of Lasallian association.

Professor Patrizia Longo asked the group's founder, Siamack Sioshansi, to team up with her for a January Term class in Food Justice, and the students turned a neglected backyard into "a fantastic garden and learning lab," said Sioshansi. The next year, he partnered with Professor Kristen Sbrogna for a course called "Food to the People."

Finally, he met Aleenah Mehta '12, who was then a senior working on a community-based research project, as part of CILSA's Student Leaders in Community Engagement pilot thesis program. She was interested in food justice issues, and Sioshansi's vision ignited her passion.

Harvest Compassion: Students turn backyard bounty into a blessing for food banks

"On one of our drives to the Monument Crisis Center after a harvest, I can distinctly remember him explaining the enormous potential for the fruit gleaning program as he pointed out fruit tree after fruit tree on one side of the road," she recalled. "In that moment, I was awed by his vision. Within the short span of our drive we had literally passed thousands of pounds of food. He said, ‘Imagine how many people we could feed with all of that fruit!'

Mehta turned her research project into a model that enabled Urban Farmers to scale up its operation to a much higher level. The harvest has grown from just a few hundred pounds several years ago to 31,000 pounds last year, and Sioshansi estimates it will reach 50,000 pounds this year. "What Aleenah did was game-changing work," he said. 

Mehta went on to present her work at conferences in Seattle and New York. Next year, she will study at Oxford University in pursuit of her goal—working with the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.

She credits her classmates, CILSA partners, professors, family and friends for much of her success. "I never could have done this by myself," she said. Working together "allows people to bring so many perspectives together to create something more beautiful than you could ever have done by yourself."

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