Mar 8, 2013
Food banks a destination for unsold produce

To John Hamilton, donating the excess produce he grows every year to feed the hungry is a “good deal.”

Hamilton is among dozens of Springfield, Ill., area farmers who participate in “Plant a Row for the Hungry.” A local branch of the national effort is operated through the master gardener program of the University of Illinois Extension. Through it, more than 46,000 pounds of produce was funneled to the Central Illinois Food Bank and food pantries around the region last year.

The fruit and vegetables come from a variety of sources, said Judy Taylor, a master gardener and co-chair of Springfield’s Plant a Row efforts. First, many vendors at area farmers’ markets either bring along extra to donate or just contribute whatever they don’t sell each week.

At the end of the year, they receive an itemized statement of what they have given so that they can use it as a tax deduction if they want to.

“We’ve got a couple of smaller vendors who may say they don’t have anything today because their supply is not large,” Taylor said. “But there are others that have regular farms … and most of the time we’ll get two big banana boxes and they’ll be just full of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers. In the spring, there will be strawberries, or we might get blueberries – we’ll get a lot of what’s in season.
“But these vendors donate thousands and thousands of pounds to the food bank.”

Small farm, big heart

Hamilton is among them. With what he described as a 3-acre “micro farm,” of which 1 acre is in production, his yield is 15,000 pounds of vegetables annually. Growing “every vegetable you can imagine except the ones that take a lot of space like corn and pumpkin,” he sells what he can at the farmers’ market and donates the rest. When the market ends but his produce keeps coming into December, he takes what he grows to food banks, too.

“It’s a good deal for me,” he said. “I compost all of my crop debris and, even donating, I have a mountain of crop debris. If I didn’t donate stuff, I’d have a really big mountain.”

But it’s about more than that, he said.

“I enjoy doing it,” he said. “And I guess my hope is that somewhere there are kids, especially, who get a decent meal instead of corn chips and hot dogs.”

Community gardens

Also contributing to the total poundage are community gardens. For example, employees at the Illinois Farm Service Agency (IL FSA) serving farmers out of an office in Springfield decided to plant a garden three years ago.

They formed the IL FSA Land of Lincoln & Partners Community Garden, working with more than 20 community partners.

“They set aside one day a week … they come before work and they all go out and work in the garden and take care of the whole thing,” Taylor said. “Then everything from that garden is donated to the food bank.”

The Farm Service Agency garden went from producing more than 3,000 pounds the first year to in excess of 4,000 pounds the second – receiving a governor’s award for their garden, too.

“This last year, they decided they would try some potatoes,” Taylor said. “They had FFA kids that will come in and plant, which is phenomenal. These kids had this entire garden planted in, like, an hour and a half.”

The result in year three? More than 16,000 pounds.

“We sure hope that since we are the USDA, that we are setting an example for others as they read about what we have accomplished with the little time we spend in the garden during the day, week or month,” said Mary S. Kirby, FSA public affairs-outreach specialist.

She remembers one day when, with help from their community partners, the volunteers picked 5,700 turnips and took them to the Central Illinois Foodbank.

“They reported back that by the end of the next day, all the turnips were gone,” Kirby said. “Knowing that there were that many people out there in need of fresh produce and that we were able to grow the produce and provide it to them is an overwhelming feeling of joy.”

Other community gardens also contribute produce. When needed, the master gardeners serve as mentors, offering guidance and even helping at harvest time sometimes.

“I have a couple of farms that grow sweet corn and let me know when it’s ready,” Taylor said. “I can get a group together and we’re out in a cornfield at 6 o’clock in the morning, harvesting corn.”

Food bank benefits

It all plays right into the mission of Central Illinois Foodbank, which serves 21 counties.

“We work with Feeding America, which is a national hunger relief organization,” said Kaleigh Friend, Central Illinois Foodbank public relations manager. “They have really shifted the focus to fresh produce.”

Receiving the local and regional donations of fresh produce helps supplement what Central Illinois Foodbank is able to procure through Feeding America. The organization has gone from distributing 95,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables a year to 1.5 million pounds, and Friend said a lot of the credit goes to the local efforts.

“We have just had more and more farmers buy into donating the excess,” Friend said.

Clients appreciate it. And the food banks try to help maximize use of the produce by providing and even sampling recipes when possible.

“They love the fresh produce,” she said.

In fact, due in part to the growth in fresh foods among food bank offerings, Central Illinois Foodbank is getting ready to move to a new, larger donated facility that’s being fitted with cold storage designed to accommodate the varying needs of different crops.

“In the past year, we had to divert over 700,000 pounds to other food banks, because we didn’t have (sufficient) cold storage,” Friend said. “That’s because a lot of what we’re seeing now is fresh or frozen – not the canned or boxed items.”

Taylor said the increasing amount of locally donated produce is particularly astounding given recent drought conditions.

“We had no corn last year, and normally we have a lot of corn,” she said. “It was a struggle from the word go.
“But we ended up with more produce than we’ve ever had. The vendors were extremely generous. And it all adds up: 46,000 pounds? That’s a lot of produce.”

Kathy Gibbons

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