TWO YEARS AGO Jed Colquhoun PhD’00 told Grow about a vegetable grower who had to leave 40 acres of carrots in the field because his local processing plant was over capacity. Wasting food bothers Colquhoun, and it bothers people in the state’s vegetable industry just as much. Now they’re doing something about it together. Wisconsin is a leader in processed vegetables—No. 2 nationwide in acreage and production and No. 3 in the value of goods produced—and now the state’s growers and processors are leaders in a new approach to hunger relief. We asked Colquhoun, a professor of horticulture and director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, to describe how the industry and such food relief groups as Second Harvest of Southern Wisconsin are partnering to get vegetables from farms to food banks.
When we think of donating to food pantries, we think of collection barrels filled with cans, jars, boxes and cellophane bags. It’s hard to imagine how you’d fit truckloads of fresh carrots into that mix.
We now know that that model isn’t terribly realistic when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds of carrots. We’ve been working on determining the logistics from the field all the way to the food bank—and beyond, because food banks distribute through mobile food pantries or local food pantries around the state. That last piece, what they call the last mile of food delivery, needs to be considered.
That’s why we don’t focus more on fresh products. It’s about perishability and handling food safely. If we can get food in a can we no longer have the need for freezing and refrigeration. We have to consider where it’s being delivered, and having the capacity to hold this food for quite some time. Especially when you talk large volumes.
So now you have a different model?
What we’ve narrowed it down to, as one of our processors put it, is to make “field to food bank” an invisible component of the traditional food distribution system. In other words, capture the produce from Wisconsin farms as far down the handling stages as possible, and then instead of going to a supermarket, that food goes to the food bank or food pantry. That’s where we’ve seen some of the success in being able to do this and develop this system further.
So basically you’ve turned this over to the experts.
Exactly. We have a very successful vegetable industry in Wisconsin. These people have decades of experience and have learned how to do it right. So let’s get it through their systems as far as we possibly can, and then divert it at the end.
These people are in business. They don’t earn a living by giving food away. Has it taken a lot of convincing to get them on board?
Wisconsin producers and processors have always been very generous, and they’re very engaged in making this work. The most amazing part has been watching the industry take ownership. I remember sitting in a coffee shop in central Wisconsin, watching the logistic chain develop to get snap beans and sweet corn to Second Harvest without my involvement at all. Somebody in the room lined up trucking and asked when they could get somebody else’s harvester over there. The processor asked when they could can that produce and how they could get it down to Second Harvest. So are they generous? Are they engaged? Very much so. And they’re asking how they can do more. They’re in business, yes. But they’re in the business of providing food.
How is it going so far?
We moved snap beans, sweet corn, potatoes and carrots through this system this summer. One grower donated a very large amount of carrots, which were processed by one of our Wisconsin processors and trucked by another Wisconsin-based company. The can manufacturer was very generous in getting the cans to the processing plant. And now we’re moving hundreds of thousands of pounds of carrots into the food bank system.
How can this help eliminate food waste?
If food gets wasted, it’s usually because a crop yields well over average. Growers and processors make planting decisions based on what the processing plant can handle, assuming an average yield. If they get an above-average yield, the key to capturing the overabundance is to connect different operations instead of relying on a single operation all the way through from harvest to trucking to processing to delivery. This means that the person who grows a crop may not be the one who harvests it, and the person who harvests it may not provide the truck, and someone else may store it and ship it down to Second Harvest.
Is this idea going to be bigger than Wisconsin?
Feeding America, the national oversight group for many of the nation’s food banks, wants to increase produce in the food bank system over the next few years. Last August they held a summit that focused entirely on how to move produce using the kind of farm-to-food-bank system that we’re developing in Wisconsin. We’re testing a model that Feeding America might be able to use at the national level.
That tells you a lot about the need for hunger relief.
Food insecurity is a growing problem. We haven’t come close to scratching the surface. Nearly 20 percent of children in Wisconsin are in what the USDA calls food-insecure households, meaning there’s doubt about where the next meal will come from. That’s alarming. Eligibility for free and reduced lunch is rising every year. Over 40 percent of the
children in Wisconsin are eligible for free and reduced lunch. It’s 82.6 percent in Milwaukee public schools. And we’re not only trying to feed hungry people, but also to provide nutritious, locally produced vegetables.
The newest development from all this, we hear, is a plan to actually grow food specifically for food banks.
The producers are talking about ways that they can plant crops intentionally that will move into the food bank system. In other words, they may grow 100 acres of snap beans and allocate a half-acre to food banks. Those beans would move through the food handling route with the rest of the crop, but at the end of the line, instead of going to the grocery store, they would be delivered to the food bank.
Hunger is such a huge and growing problem, but you seem pretty optimistic. Where does that come from?
I think of one grower who donated a few tons of snap beans and sweet corn this summer. In his overall portfolio of production that wasn’t enormous, but it’s still a very generous donation, and from the food bank perspective that’s huge. The grower called me that night and said, “I feel great about what we just did. Tell me what I need to do to be involved next year.” So they feel that reward, and that’s what we’re building from. Phone calls like that tell me that I want to be a part of this.
A video about this project now available at http://youtu.be/MwcjsZYVdEA