November 17, 2020

Difficult Year for Food Donations But Need Continues to Rise

By Tim Linden

It’s November and lots of harvesting equipment has transitioned from coastal California to the western desert growing regions for winter. And so has the search for fresh vegetable donations.

Feeding America is a nationwide network of food banks that provides an untold number of meals every year to millions of U.S. residents every week through food pantries and other programs. The umbrella organization, as well as the individual food banks, rely on government programs, cash donations, surplus food and fresh produce donations to help narrow the nutrition deficits that often plague the most needy among us.

Melissa Kendrick, executive director of the Food Bank for Monterey County said the approximately 10 million pounds of fresh produce her organization receives each year from local growers is critical to supplement the shelf-stable products that form the backbone of the federal government’s surplus food program. In fact, the Monterey Food Bank built a 30,000 square foot cold storage facility a couple of years ago. Kendrick admits that the main goal is to feed people who are hungry and her team accomplishes that task in any way it can. But fresh food is a vital element in that program as it provides good nutrition along with needed calories.

Kendrick said 2020 has been a very difficult year and it has been challenging to keep up with the need, especially as fresh donations have waned a bit. The Monterey Food Bank executive is quick to avoid the blame game. The entire nation was hit hard by the coronavirus, including both Monterey County growers and county residents.

The restrictions caused by the pandemic hit just as growers were beginning their spring/summer season and still planting field after field of fresh vegetables. Orders from the foodservice industry literally ceased overnight. While that could have meant a rash of donations if the season was a little bit further along, instead it resulted in fewer acres being planted moving forward and grower-shippers scrambling to salvage some returns on their already-harvested crops. It also meant the plowing up of some fields meant for foodservice as growers did not want to sink more dollars into a field that could not be harvested. That meant less surplus produce this past season.

As the Monterey Food Bank saw a tremendous increase in the number of people who needed help it also saw a significant drop in its fresh food donations. “We love our growers and couldn’t operate without them,” said Kendrick. “Unfortunately, this has been a very difficult year. And now that we are moving into winter, there will be more unemployed people and a greater need.”

Though there has been a drop in overall fresh produce donations, and for good reason, Kendrick does note that many Salinas Valley food bank partners continue to send over donations every day. She specifically mentioned some of the larger firms that help out regardless of the situation. She put Taylor Farms, Driscoll’s and Tanimura & Antle in this category and apologized that there are just too many others that help as often as they can to start naming them. “The agricultural community offers tremendous support for us.”

In Arizona’s most southwest region, the Yuma Community Food Bank is gearing up for increased donations as its area gets ready for the winter harvest to begin. Bruce Gwynn, who spent a career in agriculture—mostly with ag chemical firms but also running the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association for a time—now volunteers as a sourcing specialist working with growers and others to secure fresh donations. “We have amazing growers,” he said, again singling out both T&A and Taylor Farms as “champions” of the cause.

He said both firms are everyday donors but also said many other companies, including JV Smith Companies, Barkley Ag Enterprises, Pasquinelli Produce and Top Flavor Farms do yeoman’s work for the food bank. Gwynn admitted it has been a difficult year for fresh donations. Having been in the industry for many years, he gets it. He said profits have to come first and the Yuma Food Bank knows it does better when there is a surplus of products and prices are low. This year’s pandemic caused very robust sales on many vegetable and fruit items during the spring and summer. As such, Gwynn continued to expand his reach working with the local community college and research facilities to harvest their crops for the food bank after they have finished their educational use of the production. He said this is another area in which growers help as they often donate both land and seeds to these pursuits. He said Grimmway Farms recently donated carrot seeds for a local educational project in which one-third of an acre of carrots will eventually go to the food bank. “That’s a lot of carrots,” Gwynn said, adding that he has relied on Future Farmers of America students to harvest the crops. He noted that recently Steve Alameda of Top Flavor Farms donated an unharvested beet field that these FFA students then harvested.

Shara Whitehead, president and CEO of the Yuma Food Bank, agreed that it has been a difficult year for fresh vegetable donations. She said the local food bank has been serving the community for more than 40 years with more than 20,000 people being fed every month. She said about 8-10 million pounds of produce are donated each year, but those donations are dependent on weather and market conditions.

Whitehead credited Gary Pasquinelli, Robby Barkley and Vic Smith with lobbying the Arizona Legislature for a tax break on product that is donated to charities such as the food bank. She said that successful effort several years ago greatly increased the level of donations received by the organization.

She said that while the industry is excellent at sending its extra output to the food bank, there are always people who need a reminder. “We want them to look at the Food Bank as the end of the supply chain, and look at us as their partners.”

Whitehead did echo Gwynn’s comments that “Taylor Farms is our biggest provider. They are number one,” she said, adding that a day hardly goes by without them donating at least one-truck load full of baby greens or another healthy items that means the world to hungry people.