Every fall, farmers in Washington throw away a sizable portion of the apples they grow. In 2015, thanks to the West Coast port slowdown and a lack of refrigeration, farmers in the state dumped an estimated $100 million worth of the fruit (or 143,000 bushels) in fields where they were left to rot, causing the nearby town to smell like rancid fruit for days.
David Bobanick, Executive Director of the Washington-based hunger organization Rotary First Harvest, finds the apple dumps alarming. And although this year was an extreme example, it’s not unusual for fresh produce to go to waste due to a lack of infrastructure. In fact, approximately 23 percent of all fruits and vegetables are wasted before they even reach grocery stores. Meanwhile, 46.5 million Americans struggle to get enough healthy food.
This produce gap is one Rotary First Harvest hopes to help bridge with a program called Farm to Food Pantry. With help from the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the program buys fruits and vegetables directly from local farmers—including produce that isn’t typically available through established donation streams. Meanwhile, farmers were able to provide produce without undue financial risk because the program pays them in advance. “Hunger relief systems are not usually set up to handle produce. We are working on that with our program” said Bobanick.
This is just one of a dozen new programs like it that have sprouted around the country in recent years to recover or purchase this surplus and ugly produce to get it to those in need. It’s part of an effort designed to compliment the growing farm-to-table movement, while counter-balancing some of the elitism claims that continue to plague local food. Let’s call it farm-to-food-bank.
And while, according to Civil Eats’ tally, there are now more than 20 official programs saving over 300 million pounds of produce a year, there are still billions upon billions of pounds going to waste.
And, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) points out, food waste has environmental consequences. For example, one quarter of all fresh water is used to grow food we never eat. Food is also the number one item in U.S. landfills (37 million tons) and account for 34 percent of all human-caused emissions of methane, a potent Greenhouse Gas.
The bulk of the produce that doesn’t make it into grocery stores is made up of “seconds,” or produce with visual imperfections. Often this means they are just a little too big or too small for grocery store and produce marketing standards. And, as David Cloniger, Food Resource Manager of the Farm to Families Program at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, puts it, “seconds are just as tasty and nutritious as firsts (what we see in grocery stores).”
While it may seem like an obvious solution, most farmers can’t afford to donate all of the produce they can’t sell. Most farms need to at least cover the pick and pack out labor or “PPO” costs (usually a modest 10-25 cents per pound). And as Bobanick found, many small-scale farmers say they’d love to donate more, but often they barely make a living. “They tell us they are often close to needing food bank assistance themselves,” says Bobanick. Now, farm-to-food-bank programs are finding creative ways to pay farmers for their seconds.
The Food Bank Council of Michigan was early out of the gates with an innovative public-private partnership called the Michigan Agricultural Surplus System (MASS) in 1990. A similar Ohio-based program began in 1999, and the California Association of Food Banks started its program, which has since become a model for many to draw from. In the last five years alone, programs have appeared in Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
State governments often help pay for farm-to-food-bank programs, but funding levels can vary widely. Many receive modest government funding of less than $1-2 million each year to cover the PPO labor costs for farmers. The state of Ohio is an anomaly, providing a whopping $20 million to the Ohio Association of Food Banks Agricultural Clearance Program every year. And several programs receive no government funding at all. California—with an estimated 30,000 farmers and half the nation’s produce grown—has a robust program that saves 150 million pounds of produce every year yet has no funding support from the state.
Often the food banks and food bank associations will initiate partnerships with farmers and other local companies. Some start with university partnerships, like the Field to Food Bank Program at the Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB) of Wisconsin, which began working with the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2011. Danielle Lawson, Food Resources Manager at SHFB, says, “We also partnered with Del Monte Foods and some of their growers in our area, to process and store surplus and ‘ugly’ produce, helping to extend the shelf life and still provide nutritious vegetables to people struggling with hunger.”
The Farm to Food Pantry in Washington is even working with the State Trucking Association to take advantage of free pickup and drop-off by empty trucks on their way back from making other deliveries.
Despite all of these efforts, only a small portion of the excess food in this country is going to feed people in need. Ross Fraser, Director of Media Relations for Feeding America (which assists some farm-to-food-bank programs), estimates that there is still five to six billion pounds of fresh, edible produce going to waste before it hits grocery stores each year in the U.S.
Most of the programs we spoke with said that they are not even recovering half of what is available in their areas. For example, the Texas Food Bank Network completed a study to see what is grown in Texas and what is rejected (and wasted) at the Mexico border. They found that a whopping 340 million pounds get left behind and wasted, says Sarah Sykes, who runs the Feeding Texans Program for the network.
Similarly, the food recovery group Farm Share found that tomato growers in Florida dump out a truckload of imperfect but edible tomatoes in a field every 45 minutes. (Some, not all, now deliver them to food pantries around the state.)
The fresh produce that these programs provide to food banks is becoming increasingly important. As Feeding America has found, people are depending on food banks and pantries for more than just emergency food; they are an important source of daily calories for many Americans. But there is no shortage of barriers to supply healthy produce to those in need. As John Burt of Farmers Ending Hunger in Oregon says, “we’re trying to work more with growers but it does take infrastructure” as almost all farm-to-food-bank programs could use more funding for shipping totes, trucks, cold storage, and of course more produce. And that’s for states that have a program and some funding.
On the farm end of the equation, some farmers are more willing to diversify and plant more produce now that there are farm-to-food bank programs in place to buy their seconds. This is especially the case in Kentucky, where many former tobacco farmers are searching for alternatives.
Tamara Sandberg, Executive Director of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks, says their program “is helping strengthen cash flow for farmers who are new to produce, such as those making the transition from tobacco and young producers.” And that’s what these farmers need to stay in the fruit and vegetable business: cash flow. Sandberg sees the organization’s Farms to Food Banks program, and others like it, as a clear win-win.
“It’s not only providing healthful food to struggling Kentuckians and reducing the amount of wasted food, it’s also helping bolster Kentucky’s agricultural economy,” she says.
Read more detailed information about the farm-to-food-bank programs covered in this story.
Photo courtesy of Farm Share.