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Fresh food recovered for Food Closet

by Christina Nelson

After a hot afternoon at the Farmers’ Market, vendors packed umbrellas and rolled away carts to head home until the next week. Depending on the day’s sales, large amounts of the food they brought to the open air market may be thrown away.

To reduce this waste, the United States Department of Agriculture instituted a program last year called the Food Recovery Program. The program – run by the Food Service Agency, a branch of the USDA – started collecting food from the Lampe Park Farmers’ Market four weeks ago to donate to the Carson Valley Community Food Closet.

The agency recruited local organizations to pick up and transport items from the park to the Food Closet. The Valley’s 4-H program and Teens with a Future contribute to the weekly endeavor.

“At the end of the day it’s the food that (vendors) probably wouldn’t be taking back with them,” said 4-H coordinator Bob Koreski. He said the food collected is edible, but would spoil if the farmers transported it back home.

The program collected 20 and 50 pounds of food the first and second weeks, respectively.

“I really don’t know how much to expect from week-to-week,” said Harvey Neill of the Farm Service Agency. “I was amazed when we got 242 pounds last week.”

“They were thrilled over there,” he said about Food Closet workers. “They were amazed when I brought a whole truckload over there.”

The fourth week in operation, the volunteers hauled nine crates of produce totalling 211 pounds to the Food Closet. Donations included cherries, peaches, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, onions and green beans.

Neill approached vendors to seek donations before starting the program in the Valley. Before vendors begin packing away their goods, Koreski and Neill solicit individual vendors for ripe fruits and vegetables.

Merchants’ donations vary depending on how much they are able to sell or where their next destination is. If they are going to another farmers’ market later in the day, they may not have much to donate.

“It entirely varies from week to week,” said Shon Nord of Olson Family Farms, an organic fruit growing operation that donates to the program.

“We usually give away a lot (of fruit) as it is, but we usually take some home,” he said. The Olson operation is based in Kingsburg, Calif., and with a 7-hour trip home, much of the fruit brough to the farmers’ market spoils during the return voyage.

Teens with a Future volunteers Steve Hicks, 15, and Meghan Barr, 17, both Douglas High School students, plan on helping with the program all summer to earn volunteer hours toward half of a high school credit.

As soon as more 4-H and Teens with a Future youths are organized, Neill and Koreski will not have to make trips out to the farmers market to transport the food, as they have been doing for the past month.

Devon Smith, program assistant for Teens with a Future, said they try to get people out to the farmers’ market whenever help is needed.

“The reason we do this is because we try to get the kids out there and doing something for the community,” she said.

“It’s great. We love it,” said Diane Malone, director of the Food Closet. “We ask people in the area, too, to bring in their abundance.”

The Food Closet sifts through the donated food and removes “anything that isn’t desirable.” Malone said the fresh food is a welcome change to the usual canned and dry goods the food closet gives to low-income families.

“(Neill) came in and said they were going to do it on a regular basis and I was thrilled with that. We really do appreciate it,” she said.

For now the program remains small, but Neill said he hopes to gain more volunteers as the program picks up speed.

Next month Neill will begin the Food Gleaning Program, another USDA initiative related to the Food Recovery Program, where volunteers will collect left-over onions and garlic from area fields.

Both programs aim to help low-income families while reducing unnecessary food waste, Neill said.

According to the USDA, 40 percent of food grown in the United States is wasted from the time it is harvested to the time it reaches the consumer.