Thursday, March 18, 1999
The Salinas Valley, one of the richest agricultural areas in the U.S., produces so much food each season that there''s extra produce left in the fields after harvest. A Salinas-based organization called FOOD Crops (Food Organizations Organizing and Distributing Crops) has been working with local growers since 1990 to get this surplus to where it''s most needed--food banks and hungry families.
"Most of the big growers in the [Salinas] Valley call us when they have surplus," says Bernadette O''Keefe, the executive director of FOOD Crops. "Our driver goes within a 50-mile radius to pick up the crops, and then he takes it to our donated cooler space on Abbott Street. The food is already palletized and ready to transport. The next morning, we get an inventory printout of what food came in and how much, then we divide it up between our food agencies, and they do the rest."
The surprising fact in this situation is that FOOD Crops can fill local food agencies'' needs with just 45 percent of its surplus produce, from more than 100 shipper/growers.
"We can fill seven food banks. For 10 months, from April to December, they''re full," says O''Keefe. "It''s first given to agencies in the tri-counties, but they can''t use it all."
FOOD Crops works with four major food agencies in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties: the Food Bank for Monterey County, Second Harvest in Watsonville, the California Grey Bears in Santa Cruz, and Community Pantry in Hollister. In 1996, it distributed 9.1 million pounds of produce; in 1998, it gave 13 million pounds.
In addition to the food that the driver picks up and delivers, there is a program for community volunteers to help harvest the "gleanings," or surplus produce that doesn''t meet commercial standards yet is still edible, from the fields.
Every Thursday at 7:30am, from April to November, FOOD Crops organizes volunteers to pick gleanings at Valley Pride Farms in Castroville. An orientation is given in the field on the basics of harvesting, and the hands-on work continues until about 10am. "It''s hard work but it''s really rewarding to be outdoors, to get your hands in the dirt, picking food," says O''Keefe. "There''s a specific way to do it. Anyone is welcome, except young children since some crops are picked using knives." FOOD Crops is having a gleaning program orientation meeting March 18 at the Bank of Salinas on Main Street.
Almost 55 percent of the Salinas Valley produce brought in by FOOD Crops is given to California Emergency Foodlink in Sacramento, which then ships the produce to needy food banks around the state. "But that doesn''t impact local agencies, since they''re already full," says O''Keefe.
O''Keefe adds that FOOD Crops recently agreed to supply three small food banks in Madera, San Luis Obispo and Stanislaus counties, simply because they don''t get enough food from anywhere else. They take a combined 10-15 percent of FOOD Crops'' bounty.
Jim Mills, president of FOOD Crops'' board of directors and a second-generation Salinas Valley grower, got his company, Mills Inc, involved with FOOD Crops almost six years ago, and can''t say enough about the gratifying joint venture. "The work of FOOD Crops is unique in the state, and maybe the country. Thirteen million pounds of produce is phenomenal, and we''re glad to be involved. Many of the growers in the Salinas Valley have been here several generations, they''re deeply rooted in the community, and it''s rewarding to see that we grow so much, that the excess is going to good use."
According to Mills, one of the main reasons the ag industry is able to donate so much of its crops to food banks is the technique of overproducing. Many farmers plant extra at the beginning of each season, in case of poor weather, insects, disease or other variables that may affect crop yields. "Most shipper/growers take pride in the fact they can sell food, fill their orders, and give it away to help kids and seniors who need fresh fruits and vegetables," Mills says.
In years before FOOD Crops was formed by a small core of people (including Jess Brown, the current Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau executive director), much of the excess produce in the fields of the "Salad Bowl" of America was just tilled back into the ground or even tossed in the dump, says Mills.
"Cooler space was, and is, at a premium," explains Mills. "It''s easier now to have a consolidated 800-number to call, where FOOD Crops just comes to pick everything up. It''s highly efficient and food doesn''t simply sit in our coolers to go bad."
Besides praise from growers and food banks in the area, FOOD Crops receives strong support from politicians. O''Keefe explains that "when Senator McPherson came, I sent him out with James [the driver] and they had a great time. He [McPherson] seemed to learn a lot and he was really helpful to us" for funding and support.
Mills adds that Eric Lauritzen, the new Monterey County ag commissioner, spoke highly of the program in a recent issue of California Grower, an industry trade magazine.
In this time when approximately 11 percent of Monterey County residents live below the poverty level and often use supplemental food aid from food banks, according to a FOOD Crops brochure, partnerships between big agricultural companies and nonprofit food banks could be a solution that benefits growers and fills hungry stomachs at the same time. cw
For information on how to get involved with FOOD Crops, call (800) 331-FOOD, or 755-1481, or attend the gleaning program meeting Thursday at 10:30am, in the Bank of Salinas on Main Street in Salinas.