In spring, eastern Oregon farmer Patrick Thiel delivers thousands of pounds of organic potatoes to more than 50 farm-to-table restaurants in Portland every week. But Thiel hasn’t made the 350-mile trek over the Blue Mountains since restaurants in the state closed in March.
Like thousands of small-scale farmers, Thiel faced a total loss of sales. Then, out of the blue, he got an order for 500 pounds of potatoes, to be delivered to the regional food bank—paid in full. It was the result of a spontaneous community initiative called the Great Potato Drive. Since late March, Thiel has delivered over a ton of potatoes to the food bank, which then distributed them to 19 food pantries in four rural counties. And he has a standing weekly order, thanks to ongoing private fundraising.
As reports of food waste circulate—as well as troubling images of piles of excess potatoes—organizations and community groups are stepping up to bridge the gap between on-farm surpluses and soaring food bank demand. Civil Eats identified an array of programs throughout the United States, some of them long-standing but most of them newly emerged, to help address the 2020 food distribution crisis.
Many farmers routinely donate farm surpluses to local food banks, but the economic shutdown suddenly ruptured the food supply and farm economies—especially those dependent on restaurants and institutional customers. And most food producers cannot afford to give their premium products away.
“They need interim markets, and support in navigating this period and maintaining viability for the future,” said Emily Moose of the non-profit farm group A Greener World (AGW).
What makes these community-driven farm-to-food-bank projects stand out is that all are paying fair market prices to farmers for products that could otherwise rot in fields or go to waste. These emergency food supply chains are feeding communities while also bolstering local agriculture and rural economies.
Created as band aids to get through the pandemic, could they provide the key to longer-term solutions for both regional food systems and food insecurity?
Connecting Farms to Food Banks
In upstate New York, the Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative—a 16-agency group—pitched a GoFund Me campaign on March 18, when the winter farmers’ market was cancelled. Proceeds go to buy produce from Hudson Valley growers to fill grocery bags and create hot meals to feed hungry children and families. In two days, the effort raised $10,000 from more than 150 donors and has already raised nearly $14,000.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker-based group, created “Farm to Food Bank” in late March. The organization aims to raise $40,000 by September to buy vegetables from the farming cooperative Agri-Cultura Network (ACN) and deliver them to Roadrunner Food Bank, the largest in New Mexico, and other sites.
When two college students saw that there was no mechanism in place at the federal level to deal with massive amounts of on-farm food waste, they founded The Farmlink Project in April. According to its website, the group of volunteers has mobilized to pay farmers $4,500 while saving over 200,000 pounds of surplus produce from the field and shipping it to food banks.
And on Earth Day, AGW launched a national fundraiser, Help Farmers Feed Hungry Families During the Pandemic. With 2,000 U.S.-based pasture-based farmers as part of its Animal Welfare Approved certification program, the fundraiser is one way to help farmers redirect their unsold products to food pantries, senior meal programs, and homeless shelters within their communities.
“We saw this as a way to short-circuit food supply chains and get food where it was needed quickly—and help some farms stay in business during the process,” said Moose.
Pigeon River Farm was one of the first to sign on to AGW’s grassroots campaign. Located 40 miles east of Green Bay, Wisconsin, it produces pasture-raised eggs, which it sells through 39 health food stores in the Milwaukee area. When schools and hospitals closed, the market was flooded with cheap eggs, and the farm lost 90 percent of its sales.
“Suddenly, we were faced with hundreds of dozens of eggs with no home,” said farmer Bob Braun, who also grazes cattle and grows produce with his wife, Kim. “Financially, it was a complete calamity,” he said, noting that the community supported agriculture (CSA) model that is keeping some small farms afloat didn’t work for them. At one point, he considered dumping all the extra eggs into his koi pond.
With the AWG fundraiser, the Brauns are now providing Animal Welfare Approved eggs to the Interfaith Food Pantry—three dozen for every $10 raised. And although the eggs usually retail for about $6 per dozen, Braun said this donation-based price is fair.
“It’s just enough to shore us up and over,” he said.
Managing the Logistics
One of the biggest hurdles in preventing on-farm food waste is logistics. Especially with perishable produce like lettuce, food rescue is urgent. But the costs for coordination, packaging, and transportation are all major obstacles that farming economies cannot readily absorb, and organizations stepping in with funding is proving to be essential.
New Mexico’s emergency public health order came during the first wave of spring harvest for the 40 farms in the Agri-Cultura Network, according to ACN Director Helga Garcia-Garza. “With the closing of the schools, senior centers, daycare centers, [and] governmental businesses, we lost our market,” she said.
The 10-year-old sustainable farming organization works with seven Latinx-owned cooperative, family farms plus allied growers in the South Valley of Albuquerque that together supplies institutional buyers plus a 320-member CSA. Shifting to serve the food bank meant redirecting produce from 15 greenhouses and cold frames. “In the beginning it was a little chaotic,” Garcia-Garza told Civil Eats.
One of the people to jump in and serve as a go-between was American Friends Service Committee’s New Mexico Program Director Sayrah Namaste. Operating in the state since 1974, the international social justice organization helps train and support small-scale growers using regenerative practices.
“We’ve never worked on the food bank side,” Namaste told Civil Eats. But it quickly became evident there was a need. “We knew farmers had food that they needed to harvest and wash and get to a customer right away,” she said. “And the food bank was sending me photographs of how empty their shelves were.”
Pre-pandemic, Road Runner Food Bank served 70,000 people in dozens of counties, but unemployment depleted the agency’s annual food budget in just two weeks, according to Namaste. At the same time, the public’s panic buying meant that food bank donations from grocery stores dropped off.
Namaste found herself in a position to carry out more big-picture thinking and coordinating. When one ACN farmer told her he hadn’t had a single sale that week, Namaste rerouted AFSC funds—including money slated for a birthday fiesta honoring farmworker rights activist Cesar Chavez—to establish “Farm to Food Bank.”
With a skeleton staff over the past month, Namaste has delivered beets, carrots, and radishes to food banks within 48 hours of harvest. It’s a crucial service, said Namaste, because, “it’s expensive for a farmer to harvest and package if they don’t know if they have a customer.”
While organic, local produce is not typical for food donation, this Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization’s donor network, including individuals, faith-based groups, and foundations, are making it possible to provide the most vulnerable populations with the most nutritious foods.
Regular farm visits also help Namaste meet other farm needs, like facemasks, gloves, and bleach, to meet new safety protocols. In addition, AFSC is signing agreements with farmers to provide them with seeds, soil amendments, and other supplies to buoy them through the growing season. In exchange, they agree to pay it back by September. “Not to AFSC, but $500 worth of food to the food banks,” Namaste explains.
The farmers have reported back how meaningful it is that the food they’ve grown is going to people in the community who need it most. And Namaste sees the value of maintaining these direct linkages from farms to food banks beyond the current crisis. “The fact that we can take on this logistic and fundraising piece and they can just focus on what they’re really good at,” she said, “which is the hard work of farming.”
Established Programs Leading the Way
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress provided U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with $19.5 billion for direct payment and food purchases for farmers. So, Moose noted that there’s a public perception that farmers are raking it in. “The reality couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.
The fact is that farmers are struggling to get by while waiting for USDA to announce how that funding will be distributed through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). But Moose has grave concerns that commodity groups, the agency has historically favored, have already lined up to claim all of it. And many sustainable farming advocates think it’s highly unlikely that the USDA will tap small-scale, regional food producers for any of the $3 billion set aside for federal food purchases.
Aside from that, the disaster funding does not cover the day-to-day needs, from feed bills to mortgage payments, that AGW is hearing from their member farmers. “We have very little confidence that any of this aid money will go to independent producers,” she said. (In fact, Politico reported that USDA awarded $1.2 billion in contracts to companies that appear to have little experience working with food banks or farmers, spurning several big produce companies with extensive expertise in food distribution.) Of the farmers interviewed by Civil Eats for this story, none of them had successfully accessed federal aid programs due to lack of eligibility and clear guidelines.
But all of them have excess food that would go to waste without responsive community-based responses. One established model, which could serve as an example for other organizations looking to bridge the gap between farmers and food banks during the pandemic, is Mainers Feeding Mainers.
Created by the Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine in 2010, the innovative program buys local foods from the state’s farms, dairies, and fisheries and distributes them to families in need, establishing a much-needed sales channel.
Over the last decade, organization’s farmer pool has grown from five to 70 producers, and they now supply food to 450 Good Shepherd and partner food pantries and meal sites. Supported through private donations and state funding, the project invested $750,000 in Maine’s agricultural economy in 2018—and is proving to be an especially effective model during the pandemic.
For about 10 years, farmer Rick Belanger has donated potatoes to Good Shepherd Food Bank located six miles from his 200-acre vegetable farm, in Lewiston, Maine. He has also sold his crops to Mainers Feeding Mainers. But this spring, when the grocery chain Hannaford had a glut of processor potatoes in their stores, they wouldn’t buy R. Belanger & Sons’ Russets. Only Mainers Feeding Mainers did.
“It was a godsend for us,” Belanger told Civil Eats from his tractor. While the price is lower than what he’d ordinarily yield from stores or restaurants in Lewiston, he said he’s happy with it. “We’re not going to lose money,” he said.
Modeled on the neighboring program, Vermonters Feeding Vermonters, established and run by the Vermont Food Bank, is in its third growing season. “The heart of the program is that we want to make fresh, local food accessible to all, but we also want to support the local agricultural economy and reduce our environmental footprint,” said Michelle Wallace, director of community health and fresh food initiatives at the Vermont Food Bank.
Vermonters Feeding Vermonters has typically purchased 200,000 pounds of local produce directly from farmers, said Wallace. With the newly unemployed population, the food bank has delivered 62 percent more food this spring. So, they’re doubling the funding for Vermonters Feeding Vermonters, which is possible due to an uptick in donations Wallace describes as “holiday-level.”
In March and April, the Vermont Food Bank spent an extra $100,000 to purchase cabbage, rutabaga, turnips, beets, apples, sweet potatoes, apples, carrots, and potatoes from a total of about 10 Vermont farmers. “We have the systems and we have the infrastructure,” said Wallace, noting that they may need to rent extra trucks.
Impact Moving Forward
Are these community-organization and food-bank driven efforts enough to rescue independent farms?
Tim Gibbons of Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC) is worried for family farmers in his state, especially those isolated in communities that lack strong food hubs like those in Vermont, New Mexico, and Oregon. “The local food system, [is] at risk of going out of business,” Gibbons said. “We are doing everything we can to help ensure [its] sustainability.”
MRCC represents small-scale livestock producers in rural areas that have suffered from consolidation in agriculture, the closing of processing plants, and market losses that are too great to withstand. This includes the 15 independent family hog farmers that make up MRCC’s cooperative marketing effort, Patchwork Family Farms.
Patchwork Family Farms provides a market for those who raise animals the “traditional way,” meaning at a smaller scale than factory farms. The program secured local funds to buy and process the pork and distribute it in 400 food relief boxes to limited-income families hard hit by COVID-19. MRCC is also collaborating with two area restaurants providing free hot meals for children, service workers, and the newly unemployed.
But without savings or access to health care, Gibbons worries that many farmers’ situations are precarious. “You lose one generation of hog producers, you lose animals husbandry skills that have been passed down through generations,” he said.
Other farm-to-food bank programs are reporting win-win relationships they hope to carry forward. Vermonters Feeding Vermonters internal analysis of shows real impact for farmers, according to Wallace. “The most notable benefit is the increased stability,” she said.
The combination of dependability and flexibility makes food banks valuable customers. And the program’s evaluations demonstrate that the program can benefit farmers on all scales. “We’re not asking for their seconds, and we’re paying them a price that they set, not trying to negotiate,” Wallace said.
The assets from these transactions are “tangible dollars” that support the local economy while addressing the emergency. And the program has begun to gain traction at the state level: just before COVID-19 shutdown, the Vermont Foodbank and advocates were working with the legislature to ask for a $500,000 appropriation to fund the program.
This small success heartened Wallace who said, “The states have a role to play here; not just private dollars.” The idea may be gaining traction, as New York state recently announced $25 million in emergency funds for Nourish New York to redistribute excess dairy and other farm products to the state’s food banks.
Sayrah Namaste hadn’t heard of New England’s two established farm-to-food bank programs when contacted by Civil Eats. But she was hopeful that AFSC’s quick band-aid solution can provide lessons for for long-term change. “I’ve worked 25 days in a row with no day off just because it’s so new, urgent, and there are so many pieces to figure out,” she said.
There’s no shortage of need. ACN and Namaste are fielding phone calls from cities in New Mexico and several tribes hoping to replicate the program.
With the growing season heating up in the middle of the economic crisis, weather-worn farmers face unprecedented uncertainty. “We gotta keep our farmers farming,” said ACN’s Garcia-Garza. “We’ve got to keep economic activity afloat, because we don’t know where this pandemic is going.”
For their part, the farmers selling to their local food banks sound hopeful. Wisconsin egg producer Braun, who is raising new chicks along with 400 layers, said: “The food supply will be there, and we all need to work together on it.”
Belanger has been tilling his field for the next potato planting. He’s planning to sell Mainers Feeding Mainers from his next crops of asparagus, strawberries, and rhubarb. “We’re going to be okay,” he said. “The local markets here are just flourishing.”
And in eastern Oregon, Thiel is paying two workers to sort through the 50,000 pounds of fall potatoes in his storage shed to make sure they don’t all go bad while he focuses on spring planting. He’s expecting significant losses despite the food bank sales. But, he said, “My nose is just above water, and I’m still breathing.”
Top photo courtesy of the Vermont Food Bank.
This article was updated to correct some of the details around the Vermonters Feeding Vermonters program.