Providing Produce for the Poor

Hometown Heroes, People
on September 23, 2001

Like many who grew up during the Great Depression, Dick and Betty Osterholt of Oak Harbor, Wash., (pop. 19,795) are always on the lookout for a bargain. They snip coupons and buy discounted canned goods, and over the years they’ve bought 1.5 million pounds of potatoes at an average of 3 cents a pound.

That’s more spuds than any family of 10 could likely eat in a lifetime, but the bounteous supply the Osterholts stock is not their own, and they’ve never met the people it feeds.

Now in their 80s, the Osterholts have donated this mountain of food to Washington food banks, much of it the fruit of their own labor.

Take apples, for instance. One day Dick and Betty spotted apples lying on the ground in an orchard. With the farmer’s permission, they filled up the trunk of their car and drove the fallen fruit to their local food bank. Not long after, they saw apples on the ground in another orchard … and another. Eventually, when orchardists couldn’t find a market for their fruit, they gave the Osterholts permission to pick all the apples they wanted. To date, they (and volunteers the Osterholts have recruited to help them pick) have donated 215,593 pounds of apples to food banks that would otherwise have gone to waste.

You’d think picking thousands of pounds of apples would be enough of a challenge for people their age, but the couple has such a passion for hunting down free food for the hungry that, in today’s vernacular, it could likely turn into an extreme sport. Betty’s son, Dennis Faber, often accompanies the couple when they do some of their most exciting gleaning. He says that any time of day or night, if there’s a report of a smelt run, Betty and Dick rush down to the shore, carrying their smelt rakes.

“They come stumbling across the driftwood, going after the fish,” he says. “The whole beach is alive with smelt, and they get so excited about them, they won’t quit. ‘We’re going to the food bank, and we need to catch our limit of smelt,’ she’ll say.”

Ruth Veloza is the director of Seattle’s Northwest Harvest food bank, where the Osterholts deliver hundreds of pounds of smelt a year. She once had the pleasure of watching them go after the fish in the frigid waters of Puget Sound. “In the wee hours of the morning, they were up to their knees in water, and these tiny little silver fish came right up to the shore in waves, glittering in the moonlight. I was absolutely fascinated with the glee with which Dick and Betty gathered those fish. They knew how much they would mean to people who had no food. The next day they brought them to Northwest Harvest in five-gallon buckets.”

Fortunately, the Osterholts’ major contributions to feeding the hungry have not gone unnoticed. In 1994, they received the prestigious Jefferson Award, sponsored statewide by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and nationally by the Delaware-based American Institute for Public Service, for their outstanding community service. “It was a biggie,” Betty says, a smile radiating all over her face.

The Osterholts were in their late 70s when they received the award, and many people would have called it a day at that point, but they say they’re going to continue to help people as long as they are able.

“Last year my son said, ‘You’re getting too old for apple picking,’” Betty says. “We said, ‘We’ll see’ and we did see. We picked apples, apples, apples.”

“I only hope that when I’m their age, I’ll be as young as they are,” says Bill Vance, director of the North Whidbey Island Help House, where the Osterholts bring 500 pounds of potatoes every month for the food bank.

“They have been real champions of the poor,” Veloza adds. “They understand very well what their job is here in this world, and that is to make it a little better for all people.”