Written by Maria Gaura
SANTA CRUZ, CA (Sept. 2011) - Farmers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties donate thousands of tons of fresh fruits and vegetables to food banks every year, supplying feeding centers as far away as Washington and Colorado.
It’s a massive foodlift operation that all began 38 years ago with a freezer full of slightly yellow cauliflower.
The year was 1973, and Michael Alexander was a VISTA volunteer assigned to a tiny emergency food pantry in Santa Cruz, where his job was to scrounge up dented cans and long-in-the-tooth produce from grocery stores to hand out to needy families.
“One day I got a call from a lady in Watsonville who told me she had some cauliflower that she hated to see thrown away, and did we want it,” Alexander said. “I thought it was a great idea and I asked ‘how much do you have?’ And she said “oh, about 30 tons’.”
The cauliflower had been individually flash-frozen and packed into 40-pound boxes. But because the heads were cream-colored and not perfectly white, the harvest was downgraded from Grade A to Grade B, and nobody wanted to buy it.
“My boss, a guy named Al Diludovico, said ‘if somebody offers me 30 tons of food, I’m going to take it',” Alexander said. “So I started calling everyone I could think of who might want some cauliflower.”
The next three months of Alexander’s life were spent peddling the pallid produce to schools, nursing homes and social service agencies. “People came from all over California to the freezer in Watsonville, and they would take anywhere from a box to a station wagon full,” Alexander said.
“The grower didn’t have to pay dump fees and got a tax write-off, and we got tons of beautiful produce to feed the hungry,” he said. “It was a win-win situation. And when the cauliflower was gone, the phone kept ringing with people asking ‘what else have you got?’ “
"What Else Have You Got?"
As it turned out, there was quite a lot of extra food to be gotten. Central Coast farmers produce an enormous variety of fruits and vegetables, and growers were eager to find a use for their excess produce.
“When you’ve grown and harvested a lot of really top-quality produce, and there’s no market for it, most people don’t want to just throw it all away,’ said Jess Brown, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, and co-founder of Ag Against Hunger, a Salinas-based charity that has distributed more than 178 million pounds of produce since 1990.
“The problem was, giving produce away was difficult to do,” Brown said. “You’d have to call 20 agencies to see if anyone wanted something, and maybe they’d want a case or two, or maybe a half box of carrots and half box of celery, that sort of thing. It was labor intensive, and farmers are busy. It wasn’t really worth it.”
But if food bank volunteers were willing to make the calls and arrange the logistics, farmers were eager to contribute, and contributions flooded in. Alexander was startled by the bounty, and came to find that the situation was not unique to Central California.
Staggering Amounts of Wasted Food
The amount of waste generated by the American food industry is staggeringly huge. The U.S. government estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of all the food produced in this country is thrown away uneaten. Much of that waste takes place in the fields and packing sheds, partly due to overproduction, but also because retailers want fruits and vegetables to look completely uniform, and Nature doesn’t work that way.
If your crop of leeks is too green, it’s trash. If the apples are slightly too small, forget about it. If your carrots are too big, they’re unsaleable. Ag Against Hunger estimates that 20 percent of perfectly edible local farm produce goes to waste before it ever gets to a store or a consumer.
Alexander quickly formed ties with area farmers, and began sharing his truckloads of Watsonville apples, Salinas salad greens, and Castroville artichokes with food banks in Santa Clara, Alameda, Sacramento and Contra Costa counties. Anti-hunger activists in those counties began showing up with trucks of oranges, cherries and peppers to share, and the outlines of a network began to take shape.
But the activists were rookies at handling fresh food, and there were some disasters.
“One time we got permission to harvest cabbages directly from the field,” Alexander said. “The cabbages were perfectly good, but they were starting to get a little pointed at the top, and apparently no one wants to buy pointed cabbage.
“So we got volunteers, and harvested all day, and made the mistake of putting thousands of cabbages in plastic bags,” he said. “By morning the cabbages had turned to slime and stunk to high heaven. We learned that lesson the hard way.”
As the food bank network grew, Alexander and other activists began forming partnerships with grocery store chains and food manufacturers, a move which brought tons of processed foods pouring into food charities across the U.S. Much of the food was healthy and wholesome, but junk food and sodas also became part of the mix.
On the Central Coast, the agriculture community quietly and efficiently took over the fresh produce side of the business. In 1990, Jess Brown joined with strawberry farmer Tim Driscoll and Second Harvest CEO Willy Elliott-McCrea to found Ag Against Hunger.
The Farmer Takes Control
Ag Against Hunger (AAH) now operates a 5,000 square foot produce cooler in Salinas, and coordinates a system of harvesting, shipping and sharing that brings fresh food to hundreds of thousands of people in need.
Some of the bounty is overproduction, and some packaged produce is rejected by grocery store buyers for cosmetic or labeling reasons. Crops such as broccoli aren’t harvested in the first place unless the heads are perfectly uniform – so AAH has arranged with farmers to have harvesters toss the odd-sized vegetables into separate bins for food bank use.
The agency has also created a gleaning program, where volunteers gather on weekends to harvest fruit and vegetables left behind in the fields by professional harvest crews.
On a recent summer morning, the parking lot outside the Ag Against Hunger warehouse was piled with crates of salad mix, green beans, celery and romaine lettuce. Warehouse manager Cesar DeLaTorre used his forklift to shuffle some boxes into the cooler, and others into a waiting Second Harvest delivery van.
“There are so many reasons for the surplus, it’s really very complicated,” said Ag Against Hunger Marketing Director Lindsay Coate. “But this is beautiful produce, it’s grocery-store quality. We’re making sure it doesn’t go to waste.”
Maria Gaura's reporting on food and nutrition banking was undertaken as part of a fellowship offered through the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, administered by the University of Souothern California's Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.