GRANITE BAY, Calif. —Throughout the year, Duskie Estes and her team of 300 volunteers spread out around Sonoma County, California, venturing into backyard gardens and small farms, gleaning seasonal produce after harvests and unwanted fruit from trees and bushes.
What may seem like an insignificant gesture — picking leftovers — added up: The team, a nonprofit called Farm to Pantry, last year harvested 230,000 pounds of produce from 250 participating property owners and donated it to 85 local food distribution sites, where people who can’t afford their next meal can pick up the produce for free.
“Every little bit does create big change for a family, for a person, for an environment,” says Estes, executive chef and Food Network star, who took over as Farm to Pantry’s executive director in April and has long-term plans to expand statewide.
Farm to Pantry is eliminating food waste while tackling the emergency hunger crisis brought on by destruction from wildfires and pandemic-driven unemployment.
This effort can be seen in counties all over California — the country’s agriculture hub with 70,000 farms and ranches and 400 commodities — as groups are redirecting food waste to help feed the 22.5% of Californians who are food insecure, according to Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research.
While these groups are making strides to help the current food crisis, their long-term goal is to foster a more resilient network between farmers and food distribution sites that can withstand the next catastrophe.
One nonprofit, Growing the Table, connects small-scale, minority and women-owned farms in 12 regions around the state with local organizations that can assist in all phases of the food distribution process, from harvest to delivery to meal prep.
Most of these farmers and ranchers are considered socially disadvantaged — a population that makes up 19%, or nearly 1 in 5, of California’s total agricultural producers, according to a 2020 report from CDFA, the state’s food and agriculture department — because they suffer from language barriers and lack of resources to market their crops or join larger-scale food rescue programs that deliver to food banks.
“We saw an opportunity to match up the need with the supply by being as inclusive as possible, especially for farms and ranches owned and operated by women or minorities,” says Kat Taylor, founder of Growing the Table and environmental philanthropist.
Hmong farmers, a group of Southeast Asian farmers living in Fresno, had their sales depleted when restaurants and farmers markets, the main markets for their Asian specialty crops, shut down.
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Growing the Table funded the local Asian Business Institute and Resource Center, which previously had no experience in food systems, to utilize their cultural ties and connect with the farmers, purchase their crops and help with distribution.
“Hopefully, that will not only meet the immediate need for food aid, but also give them more resilient, durable demand channels that they can access in the future,” says Taylor, who plans to run the program through the year and share insights with farmers, policymakers and food advocates.
Taylor’s program complements the state’s Farm to Family program, run by the California Association of Food Banks (CAFB), and supported by the CDFA and the California Department of Social Services, that rescues about 160 million pounds of produce a year from 240 large-scale farmers, packers and distributors and delivers it to partner food banks.
Participating farmers are compensated for the transportation and produce-packing costs and receive tax incentives.
The program was established in 2005 but expanded in the last year with the help of the state, the governor’s office and private donors, to meet the demand from both farmers and food banks, explains Lauren Lathan Reid, director of communications for the CAFB.
These partnerships have been particularly vital for urban food banks, such as the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, located farther from farmland than other food distribution sites.
In Sacramento County, the food bank distributes food to 280,000 people each month, up from 150,000 pre-pandemic, says Blake Young, executive director of the food bank and CAFB board member. Of the food, 42% is fresh produce and 80% of the produce comes from the Farm to Family program, he says.
“We are really going to have to rely on these partnerships to ensure that we can meet the demand,” says Young, of the years it will take to bounce back from a hunger crisis of this size.
Fostering these partnerships is what inspired Brown University senior Aidan Reilly to get a younger generation involved.
Reilly co-founded the nonprofit The Farmlink Project from his home in Los Angeles last spring when he read the news of farmers having to dump millions of pounds of surplus produce, he says, along with reading that a Santa Monica food bank was running out of supplies.
“It seemed liked two issues that could solve each other,” he says.
He and fellow college students created a website for farmers and ranchers, volunteers and food banks nationwide to sign up based on need.
To date, the nonprofit has grown to 130 volunteers, averaging 21 years old, who coordinate produce pickup and transportation, typically within 800 miles, to a food bank. There are no warehouses involved.
Since May, in California alone, Farmlink drivers have moved 5 million pounds of food, including partnering with a volunteer pilot program to fly food to remote areas of the state. After he graduates this year, Reilly plans to continue growing the program, being an outlet for farmers who want a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle.
“If the pandemic had any sort of silver lining in this area, it’s been that it’s changed the initiative,” Reilly says. “It’s changed the incentive for large organizations in terms of how they view their food waste.”
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Leftovers From Backyard Gardens and Small Farms Feed Californians originally appeared on usnews.com