Food banks sourcing more fresh produce

Produce in a heart shaped bowl
March 29, 2017
by Brooke Still

Imagine you were given a bushel of apples that you’d never be able to eat before they go bad. You have three options: take what you can and throw away the rest, refuse the apples all together or take what you’ll eat and give the rest to your friends. Feeding America member food banks are faced with this scenario often — on a much larger scale — and throughout the country, they’re choosing option three.

It’s our mission to make more nutritious food available to the people who need it — but often that food can be less frequently available or more perishable. So food banks are partnering together to feed the most people healthy foods.

Second Harvest Heartland: Combating cold off-seasons

It was obvious to the folks at Second Harvest Heartland that in the Midwest, more produce is available in the summer than in the winter. But when Bob Branham, director of produce strategy, looked at the data, he saw just how sharp the decline becomes when the temperature drops: During peak seasonality, they might distribute 18 different kinds of produce, but in the off season, that variety can drop to just five. And when the variety of produce declines, so do the pounds distributed. Branham knew they couldn’t be the only food bank in the Midwest facing this challenge.

So with Feeding America’s help, Second Harvest Heartland decided to take on the challenge of a produce mixing center — a hub for fresh produce, often led by one food bank who sorts large quantities of food into more manageable loads and then delivers them to other food banks in the same geographic region.

Second Harvest Heartland and its partners officially launched the mixing center in March 2016 with up to 17 participating food banks at any given time, located throughout the Midwest — and the growth has been phenomenal. They’re working with food banks in warmer climates throughout the country to source the produce — and at the end of their first year, they’ll have distributed slightly more than four million pounds of fresh fruits and veggies. But this is just the beginning — the produce cooperative has set the high goal of sourcing 15 million pounds annually by 2019 — feeding more of our neighbors the healthy foods they need.

Feeding the Pacific Northwest: Making the most of the abundance

Fifteen hundred miles to the west, Feeding the Pacific Northwest works in an entirely different climate. Rather than facing a dry spell during produce off seasons, food bankers in the Northwest often see excess produce — good fruits and veggies going to waste because food banks can’t metabolize them fast enough.

That’s how an inventive collaboration called Feeding the Pacific Northwest was born. The idea is simple: With Feeding the Pacific Northwest (FPNW), member food banks — The Idaho Food Bank, Oregon Food Bank, and Food Lifeline and Second Harvest Inland Northwest in Washington — collaborate with state association Feeding Washington to source and share produce across the tristate region so that nothing goes to waste.

Through careful planning and constant communication, FPNW helps to ensure that each food bank has enough to meet its individual needs, and then shares excess produce. Some of the main produce items that the member food banks share are what there’s an abundance of in the region: apples, onions, pears and potatoes Last summer, The Idaho Foodbank knew it was going to receive an excess of zucchini and summer squash all at once. Rather than risking those nutrient-rich foods going bad, they sent a load to Second Harvest Inland Northwest. And when the Oregon Food Bank had a green bean donation that was more than it could distribute, Feeding the Pacific Northwest made it easy to share the abundance. That’s just the beginning — since the project started in July 2015, FPNW has sent more than 13 million pounds of excess produce across the country.

Apple sorting
Second Harvest Inland Northwest sorting apples — one of the top commodities for the region.

At the end of the day, Feeding the Pacific Northwest Project Manager Elizabeth Rosenberg says that it’s all about returning access to fresh fruits and vegetables to the people they serve. “A lot of times, fresh fruits and vegetables can be the first thing that gets cut from someone’s budget.” So when food banks work with each other, they’re making sure quality produce ends up on dinner plates throughout the region.

Looking ahead

When it comes to working together regionally to supply more fresh produce, the Feeding America network is just getting started. Thanks to a generous investment by Cargill — a Feeding America partner — food banks are finding new efficient ways to feed people facing hunger, like with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Cooperative that will serve people in 13 states. Michelle Grogg, Senior Director, Corporate Responsibility for Cargill, emphasized the company’s deep commitment to impact and innovation, saying, “We believe the investment in these innovative regional produce mixing centers will demonstrate real impact in local communities, providing food banks with greater quantity, quality, and choice of fresh produce — one step toward addressing the complex issue of food insecurity.” As produce mixing centers and regional cooperatives form and expand within the Feeding America network of food banks, we can ensure that the nutritious foods are ending up on the tables of those who need it most.

Tags: Fighting Hunger in Action , Produce & Nutrition , Idaho, Oregon, Minnesota, Washington , Food Lifeline, Oregon Food Bank, Second Harvest Heartland, Second Harvest Inland Northwest, The Idaho Foodbank , Cargill

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