Harvesting Female Empowerment: Florence Reed and the Business of Food

Florence Reed, Founder and President, Sustainable Harvest International

Sustainable Harvest International Founder and President Florence Reed did not encounter many other women leaders in philanthropy when she started the organization in 1997. “I was flying by the seat of my pants. I literally went to a library and checked out a book on how to start a non-profit, and went through it chapter by chapter,” she recalled in a recent interview with Philanthropy Women. Who knew then how successful her initiative would be: Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) was recently named by Charity Navigator as one of the “six highest-ranking charities in the sector making major strides to increase sustainable food production.”

The dearth of women in leadership positions in philanthropy has changed over the past twenty years, largely because women like Florence Reed have pushed hard to involve more women in their endeavors. The two women Reed put on SHI’S first Board of Directors, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and a member of the International Women’s Club of New England, helped her network with other women in philanthropic organizations. She noted that this reaped immediate rewards: “I found SHI’s first treasurer through my connection with the International Women’s Club,” Reed recalled.

Reed’s attention to women’s involvement in the founding of her organization mirrors the work SHI does to improve women’s lives in Central America. SHI was born out of Reed’s desire to halt the decimation of the rainforests by educating farmers on how to replace slash-and-burn agricultural methods with sustainable practices that use their land more efficiently. SHI programs in Belize, Honduras, and Panama teach multi-story cropping and other sustainable farming practices. But Reed soon recognized that her work did more than help prevent the destruction of more rainforests. As she explained, “I did not expect it, and was surprised to learn that the women we work with gained in self-respect and also in the respect they received from others.” SHI has built a unique niche for women in partner communities to provide more for their families and develop their skills and self-confidence.

Self-Worth Grows Among SHI’s Female Farmers

As Reed notes, in the small rural communities where SHI works in Belize, Honduras, and Panama, life follows traditional gender patterns. She explained, “men farm or work at day labor, and women are responsible for caring for various family members and taking care of the home.” In addition to cooking and caring for their families, Reed explained that “rural Central American women collect firewood and build cooking fires, wash all clothing by hand, maintain household gardens, and help their husbands in farm work, especially during harvest season.” Housewifery in this instance bears no resemblance to the way that women run households in the United States and other developed nations. It is rigorous and exhausting work.

Sadly, as important as such work is to the maintenance of society, it has not always been valued. But women in SHI partner communities have discovered renewed self-worth and earned widespread respect through their participation in the programs.

According to Reed, even though SHI programs have always been open to anyone in a community where the organization works, “at first only a few women were interested. Participants were mostly male farmers, responsible for crops like corn and beans that require larger pieces of land.”

Soon, though, women began to participate in larger numbers. “Women’s regular responsibilities prevent them from going too far from home, ” Reed explained. “Women became interested in making their household gardens more productive through bio-intensive and square foot gardening. The practices they’ve learned from SHI training have allowed them to diversify their gardens and improve the nutritional balance of the family’s food supply. They grow many different fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, celery, radishes, lettuce, spinach and watermelon, and tend to papaya, citrus, mango and other fruit trees.” Surplus produce is sold in the community, increasing the family’s income.

This corresponds to SHI’s secondary goal of helping Central Americans feed their families and increase their household incomes. Yet Reed noticed that the women who have participated in SHI programs have benefited in many ways beyond basic household economics. She cites three specific examples of the ways that SHI’s work has given these rural women new opportunities to improve the quality of their lives and find their power as individuals:

  • One woman who suffered from severe depression seldom left her house. But the success of her fruit orchard led other villagers to come to her for advice about their own crops and gardens. Now, she told Reed, she “looks forward to waking up each day.”
  • Another woman has been so successful in her endeavors that she has become an important promoter of SHI programs and women’s involvement in them. She has even been invited to a national women’s conference to speak about farming practices.
  • One woman feared for the lives of two of her children when they were born underweight and she was so malnourished she was unable to breastfeed them. After working with SHI, Reed said, “her health improved, she gave birth to a normal weight baby, and was able to breastfeed.”

SHI has changed the lives of these women not only by improving their economic situations and physical health, but also by creating opportunities for them to increase the respect they receive from others. Reed even discovered that, “in many cases their husbands view them as more equal partners because they contribute more directly to the family income.”

How Can Women Support SHI?

Women in the United States can also benefit from work with Sustainable Harvest International. Reed highlights many different ways to contribute to SHI’s important work:

  • Volunteer: Reed said that “SHI offers many opportunities to participate as a volunteer in many different capacities, from translating documents to stuffing envelopes.” At their Ellsworth, Maine headquarters, volunteers perform data entry and package spices. But volunteers can work from many different locations.
  • Fundraise: Anyone can work with SHI staff to hold an SHI fundraiser. Historically, women in the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s rights movement learned a tremendous amount about finance and politics through fundraising; women today can do the same.
  • Book a Speaker: Florence Reed and her staff travel all over the world to promote SHI’s life-saving work, and welcome invitations to speak about SHI’s programs to women’s groups, civic organizations, churches, schools, and other places.
  • Donate: Women have become vital players in the world of nonprofit philanthropy as their financial profiles have increased. Though women still do not earn equal pay with men, at least 45% of millionaires in the United States are women. The financial power of women is evident can exercise significant economic muscle.
  • Do Field Work: SHI offers open and private guided trips to its program locations, where you can work alongside staff and farming families in hands-on projects to improve their communities. Participants enrich their own lives through new friendships, learning about other cultures, and developing their own sense of self-worth.

Reed’s work at SHI is just one of thousands of successes for women’s leadership involved in philanthropic work. Not only does her work benefit the planet, it brings new confidence and greater independence to the women it serves.


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