Farm to food bank: Moving farmers from ‘dump’ to ‘donate’

Why We Wrote This

The coronavirus pandemic triggered two alarming trends – farms dumping unsellable food amid record levels of hunger. Now, thanks to ingenuity and heart, a number of programs are working to connect farmers with folks in need.

Courtesy of The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts
The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts delivers produce from its mobile food bank truck in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Executive Director Andrew Morehouse says that demand for food relief has increased some 20% over last year.

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For months, those involved in the agricultural sector have witnessed two concerning developments. Farmers who sell to the “food away from home” sector have lost their markets, and have been left to throw out milk, leave vegetables unharvested, and even euthanize unprocessed pigs and chickens. At the same time, the number of people who need food assistance has skyrocketed.

The number of food-insecure Americans jumped from 37 million in 2018 to as many as 54 million today, according to data from the Department of Agriculture and Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger relief organization.

Now, a growing number of nonprofit programs and government initiatives are working to solve these parallel needs – finding a way to give farmers a new market by taking unsellable food and getting it to those individuals and families who are hungry. 

Thanks to an initiative by the agriculture nonprofit A Greener World, Georgia rancher Chad Hunter was able to give the grass-fed beef he usually sells to restaurants to a local food pantry instead – and still get paid. 

“It seems like such an obvious solution right now,” says Emily Moose of A Greener World. “Why not do what we can to help those two get connected?”

On a recent Monday morning, Tom Brugato went to watch his company deliver food.

This, by itself, was not unusual. Mr. Brugato is president of the Pacific Coast Fruit Co., one of the Northwest’s largest produce distributors, with nearly 200,000 square feet of warehouse space and a client base that includes dozens of restaurants, grocery stores, processors, and wholesalers.  

But this time the distribution center was a church. And it was the priest, wearing mask and gloves, who gave out food boxes – some 650 over the course of about 45 minutes, part of a new federal effort to pay farmers and distributors to get their wares to a rapidly growing food-insecure population.

“We watched three big lines of cars go around the church blocks,” Mr. Brugato says. “The need. I didn’t realize the need.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

For months, those involved in the agricultural sector have watched two alarming trends. Farmers who sell to the “food away from home” sector – schools, restaurants, stadiums, and so forth – have lost their markets, and have been left to throw out milk, leave vegetables unharvested, and even euthanize unprocessed pigs and chickens. At the same time, the number of people who need food assistance has skyrocketed.

The number of food-insecure Americans jumped from 37 million in 2018 to as many as 54 million today, according to data from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger relief organization. Feeding America estimated in early May that an additional 17.1 million Americans could soon find themselves without enough food, on top of the 40 million people the organization and its network of 200 food banks already serve. 

Now, a growing number of nonprofit programs, as well as federal and state initiatives, are working to solve these parallel needs – finding a way to give farmers a new market by taking unsellable food and getting it to those individuals and families who are hungry. 

“It seems like such an obvious solution right now,” says Emily Moose, director of communications and outreach for A Greener World, an agriculture nonprofit that helps farmers develop environmentally sustainable and animal welfare-approved practices. “Why not do what we can to help those two get connected?”

In April, her organization launched a series of fundraisers to pay farmers 90% of market rate for giving their products to local food banks. This meant that ranchers such as Chad Hunter, from Jakin, Georgia, had something to do with the grass-fed beef he usually sells to local restaurants.   

For four years now, the ranch his grandfather started, Hunter Farms Inc., has worked to raise and process cattle more sustainably and humanely than it had as a conventional, grain-feed operation. It’s a more costly process, Mr. Hunter says, but more rewarding, and he has developed a following among local chefs who like sourcing his beef for their menus.

But with the pandemic, he says, that restaurant market evaporated. So when he got the call from A Greener World, “it was just great,” he says. He reached out to a local church to see if it might be willing to distribute his food as part of its food pantry efforts; the answer was an enthusiastic yes. So he happily delivered his grass-fed steaks, knowing that they would go to a good cause and that he would also get paid. 

“A catalytic opportunity” 

A Greener World is one of many nonprofits that have tried to connect farmers to food-insecure populations. In Hudson, New York, the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming has recently launched the Local Food for Every Table initiative, an effort to coordinate with local farmers to purchase set amounts of food that will go into the food relief system. Giving farmers a contract for the season helps them plan their operations, explains Kathleen Finlay, Glynwood’s president, and also helps food pantries connect with smaller, regional growers.

“There’s a catalytic opportunity right now,” says Ms. Finlay, whose organization has already raised tens of thousands of dollars for the initiative. “Can we integrate regional food systems and emergency food systems in a way that will serve folks in need well beyond this pandemic?”

Glynwood’s efforts come on top of a recently announced New York state program, Nourish New York, that earmarks $25 million for food banks throughout the state to purchase surplus agricultural products from New York farms. A new federal program, the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program, has a similar mission – to use government dollars to buy food that had been going to institutional markets and redirect it to people who are hungry.

These government efforts have garnered both praise and criticism. The federal food box program asks farmers and distributors to bid for contracts, and some agricultural groups have raised questions about how and why the USDA picked some producers over others. Others worry that smaller farm operations are being left out of the process. Some food banks, meanwhile, have suggested that the federal program is reinventing the wheel, sidestepping the state-level hunger relief distribution system that is already in place. 

A shift toward fresh produce

For some years, says Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, food pantries have been shifting away from canned and other shelf-stable products toward fresh food. This is partly due to fewer donations from grocery stores, which themselves have less waste because of increasingly refined inventory systems. But it is also due to a growing movement to get high-nutrition food to those who arguably need it most.  

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, for instance, distributes more than 1 million pounds of local vegetables every year, Mr. Morehouse says; add in food sourced from a Quebec distributor that collects and resells produce, and from retail stores, and the number goes up to 3 million pounds. The food bank also recently bought a farm in the fertile Pioneer Valley and has contracted with two local farmers to farm it; they will pay rent in produce, which will in turn go to those in need, Mr. Morehouse says.

In other words, this trend toward getting fresh, local food into food pantries and other hunger relief programs has been accelerating even before the coronavirus pandemic.  

Most agricultural groups are applauding the government’s efforts. They see the new programs as lifelines for farmers who are facing huge financial stress.

“It represents an unprecedented investment in fresh produce by the federal government,” says Mollie Van Lieu, senior director of nutrition policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, of the farmers-to-families program. “They are going to buy more in the first month [of the USDA program] than they have in the past few years combined.”

Mr. Brugato’s Pacific Coast Fruit Co. was one of the companies that won a contract through this initiative. The government money, he says, helped him keep employees at work, pay farmers for produce, and even send enough orders to his packing box manufacturer that it was able to bring back its workforce.

“It’s impacting us in a beyond positive way,” he says.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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