My Minnesota GreenCorps focus is local foods, and my host site is The Food Group, a food bank in New Hope, Minnesota.
A food bank acts as a warehouse and distribution center, partnering with hunger relief agencies such as food shelves and meal programs. Food banks have the capacity to purchase and store enormous quantities of food, allowing partners a greater variety of less costly items to buy and offer at their own site. My service position within the Food Group is with the produce programs. These innovative and overlapping projects are united by the goal of increasing the amounts of fresh, local produce that are available to hunger relief agencies that partnered with the Food Group. This is accomplished by:
- establishing edible landscapes in public spaces
- gleaning excess produce from local farms and orchards
- growing and harvesting from our own farm
- creating partnerships with local Minnesota farms to purchase and distribute produce
All produce that is donated to or gleaned by our organization goes out for free to hunger-relief agencies that source from the Food Group.
There are many benefits of the Produce Programs that enhance the social justice component of hunger relief. The most immediate benefit is human health. Fruits and vegetables can be unattainable by some, due to prohibitive costs or lack of access to grocery stores. Helping community groups start giving gardens and providing free produce to food shelves increases access to nutritious food for all people. A major environmental benefit of locally sourced produce is a decrease in food miles — the amount of energy and resources that it takes to transport food from the producer to the consumer. This decreases petroleum-based fuels consumed and CO2 emitted as well as reducing strain on transportation infrastructure.
Pollution is another issue that can be ameliorated by local agriculture. The Minnesota GreenCorps is an AmeriCorps program that is managed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, who are motivated by improving air, land, and water health. Farms, gardens, and orchards are a natural way to improve air, water, and soil quality. Plants sequester carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis as well as prevent water pollution by helping water to infiltrate into the soil rather than running off directly into water bodies. Good agricultural practices help to build soil nutrition through composting, cover cropping, and other techniques. Healthy soil requires less potentially harmful and costly chemical inputs as well as yielding larger quantities of nutritious produce.
How did I harvest all that food?
There are a variety of ways that commercial farms can support hunger relief work, reduce waste, and improve their bottom line, including partnering with the Food Group. On the JPS Farms in Center City, Minnesota, the Food Group purchased seeds and organized a volunteer day where over 2,300 melon plants were planted. The melons from these plants were then harvested by the farm and donated free-of-charge to a local food shelf. In addition to the produce that they directly brought to a food shelf, we were able to glean melons and winter squash that were left in the field when they were done harvesting saleable crops.
In just a few short trips to the farm, we were able to bring back 6,900 pounds of melons and 2,800 pounds of squash to the Food Group, where we could distribute it to multiple food shelves. Another 5,000 or so pounds that I helped harvest were from gleaning programs at apple orchards all around the Twin Cities. Again, these orchards are able to reduce waste, and increase access to fresh Minnesota-grown produce to underserved populations. Most of the orchard harvests benefited from individual and group volunteers who helped to pick and box the fruit.
All the produce that is given to food shelves is required to be at least the quality that would be found at a supermarket, and often it is much better than that, since it doesn’t need to be harvested under-ripe, transported across the country, and stored for a long time period before it even makes it to a retailer, much less the final consumer.
An additional 824 pounds of food were harvested from the Food Group farm, conveniently located in the front lawn of the Food Group building. This on-site farm serves as a demonstration garden, educating volunteers and visitors about how to grow food in the city. It also supplements larger produce donations, this year yielding 4,700 pounds. of high quality, incredibly fresh produce that was donated for free to food shelves. These results were achieved by the two produce program staff and a handful of volunteers working a couple of hours a week throughout the summer. The farm is managed by my Minnesota GreenCorps predecessor at the Food Group, Haley Diem. After graduating from the GreenCorps program in 2015, Haley was hired by the Food Group as the farm manager and produce program assistant. The total output of the farm has almost doubled each year since Haley took on farm management duties.
The 15,068 pounds that I had a part in harvesting or gleaning are only a fraction of the total amounts of fresh local produce that were made available to hunger relief agencies through The Food Group. Tens of thousands of pounds are obtained through other programs such as produce rescue at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market, the Fruits of the City backyard fruit tree gleaning program, and giving gardens maintained by community groups. In 2016, the produce programs have made 138,151 pounds of fresh, healthy, local fruits and vegetables available to food insecure households.
How does food get to people?
Much of the produce donated and harvested goes to the Food Group warehouse where it is stored in a cooler, and later delivered by trucks to different food shelves. The fastest way for produce to get to food shelves is when it is harvested from the on-site Food Group Farm, carted into the produce cooler, and then divided up and transported to different food shelves. The logistics of that are figured out by the groups's incredible operations team, and then implemented by the tireless distribution drivers. I know they are doing a fantastic job, because no matter how much produce we put into the cooler, it goes out within a day or two. Other donations, especially small quantities of donations, can be taken directly to food shelves by gardeners and farmers.