November 4, 2022

WG&S Cover Story: Steve Brazeel and Thinking Outside the Box

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

OK, yes, it’s the quote posted by your aunt every time our country faces a challenge. But the sentiment still resonates for a reason—Mr. Rogers knew his stuff.

Think back to the not-so-distant past, to Spring 2020 when the extent of the COVID pandemic was just starting to reveal itself. “We were all watching the same newsreels,” said Steve Brazeel, Founder and CEO of SunTerra. “Milk getting poured into a ditch, our meat processing plants being shuttered, fields being disked up and fruits and vegetables rotting in the field.”

Founded in 2000, SunTerra is a grower and distributor of fresh fruits and vegetables, with distribution centers in central and southern California. With their extensive delivery network, they have supplied every region west of the Mississippi River.

“If you asked me before the pandemic what percentage of our business was sold to foodservice, I would have said 25 percent, and then 75 percent to retail and wholesale,” Brazeel said. “Come to find out that we were significantly more reliant on the foodservice market than we ever thought we were. As it turns out, a lot of the processors we sold to, the end user was foodservice. So we got hammered just like other people did.”

In the endless TV watching of that era, Brazeel remembers seeing U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue unveil a program that would become a win across the board for growers, distributors and consumers. Little did Brazeel know at that time that it would also be the start of the company’s own charitable endeavor that would change lives.

SunTerra’s Project FoodBox was born out of the company’s participation in that program Perdue introduced, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box program. As part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program announced in April 2020, the agency purchased and distributed agricultural products to those in need. Through five rounds of funding, $6 billion in fresh produce, dairy, meat products and seafood were bought from American growers and ranchers for distribution, and close to 175 million boxes were distributed across the country.

The funding for the Farmers to Families Food Box Program ended in May 2021. But for Brazeel, it was immediately obvious that the need for fresh produce in disadvantaged communities didn’t have an end date.

That’s when the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based company established Project FoodBox, which continues the mission of the Farmers to Families program by sourcing, packing and distributing boxes of fresh produce to those in need.

Its success is undeniable. Since it began, SunTerra’s Project FoodBox/Farmers to Families Program has delivered 3.3 million boxes to communities nationwide—that translates to 71 million pounds of food and 85 million meals.

One of the keys to Project FoodBox is its efficiency. The produce is harvested directly from local farms to the food boxes, and then the food boxes are taken directly to the non-profit organization or faith-based community partner to distribute directly to their client base that is in need of nutritious food.

It was a supply chain tested by the logistic pressures and erratic deadlines of the early days of COVID, Brazeel said.

“Under the USDA’s program, once they made the announcement we had one week to come up with a proposal,” Brazeel said. “So during that week we had to reach out to non-profits, come up with a box menu of what we intended to do, come up with a weekly distribution plan and schedule for, you know, April to the end of the year…and my very first thought was ‘I don’t know anybody at a food bank. I don’t know anybody at a non-profit. I don’t even know where to begin.’”

Thanks to introductions from Orange County Produce Owner/Partner A.G. Kawamura, Brazeel soon was in contact with the Orange County Food Bank and Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County.

“I introduced myself and asked if we could put together a proposal…and he said he would need like 20 truckloads weekly,” Brazeel said. “And I was thinking, ‘This poor guy. He must be thinking pickup truck type loads here.’ So I go, ‘You know, big trucks. Like 18 wheelers.’ And he says: ‘I know what you’re talking about. We can do 20 trucks.’”

Then, amid Brazeel’s shock, he called Second Harvest. And they told him the same thing. Fifteen to 20 truckloads—yes, big trucks—a week.

“I live here in Newport Beach,” Brazeel said. “And there is the conception of Orange County and the reality of the situation is very different. In Orange County, they need 40 truckloads…and I haven’t even called anybody else.”

Those initial two phone calls did lead to other introductions to organizations dealing with food insecurity in other regions. Within a week, the USDA approved Brazeel’s proposal to deliver food boxes throughout the Southwest U.S., and within another week his team did it—boxes went out to Palm Springs, Imperial Valley, Yuma, Ariz.—even the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands, where they eventually delivered more than 250,000 boxes.

“If you remember at the time there was controversy around some contractors maybe not doing the job as well as others,” Brazeel said. “What really separated us was that we took this seriously…we were so grateful. We were so thankful for the opportunity that we called our team together, and we said: ‘We are going to make these boxes so good, that if any one of us or any one we know open up this SunTerra box, it’s going to be as good as something that they would have chosen at the grocery store.”

When the funding for the Farmers to Families Food Box officially ended in May 2021, there was no doubt that Brazeel and his team would find a way to continue the program. Between the relationships forged during the peak of the pandemic and the efficiencies developed to meet high-pressure, quick-turnaround demand for product, Project Food Box was here to stay as part of the SunTerra Family. “It was like we shoved 10 years’ worth of innovation in a one-year period,” Brazeel said.

But, above and beyond that, it was just the right thing to do. Project FoodBox was born and now operates with the assistance of The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which is a federal program that helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans by providing food assistance at no cost.

“We really made this part of our business and dedicated resources to continuing to do it for two reasons,” Brazeel said. “One, it was just a really fun thing to do. And secondly, our teams found that we were uniquely qualified to do this type of work. I think that the program really had two phases. The first phase was direct pandemic relief. But within months, it became apparent that it was less about that and more about the nutritional crisis and people in these communities not having access to these fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Just remember: Look for the helpers. And know that even after those dramatic times of pressing crisis—the best helpers will stick around.

Click here to learn more about how to partner with Project FoodBox.

Click here to read the entire November/December 2022 issue.