In Minn., new effort to get the farm to the food shelf

Tony Mans
Tony Mans, director of food sourcing at Second Harvest Heartland, holds donated potatoes at the food bank. "We aren't as picky about the blemishes," Mans says. "They're fresh, they nutritious, they're ready to go." Potato farmers near Big Lake and Clear Lake regularly donate potatoes with small imperfections.
MPR photo/Julie Siple

Hunger relief organizations are stepping up their efforts to capture the millions of pounds of produce from Minnesota fields that go to waste each year, and put it on the plates of those who need it.

With that in mind, volunteers for the Neighborhood House food shelf visit the St. Paul Farmers Market on Sunday afternoons. After customers have left, the volunteers haul carts around the market.

Vendors gladly hand over what they didn't sell -- piles of beans, tomatoes, and beets.

"A lot of it would go to waste, because after today, we pick everything all over again," said Julie Yang, a farmer whose family donates leftovers every week.

The food shelf collects about 1,500 pounds each Sunday from the downtown St. Paul farmers market, mostly produce that would otherwise be composted or tossed.

Increasingly, hunger relief groups are trying to bring in what's called "agricultural surplus." They're also looking beyond farmers markets to potential sources for larger amounts of food.

They have their eyes on some of Minnesota's biggest consumable crops: potatoes, sweet corn and peas.

An estimated 210 million pounds of potatoes, sweet corn and peas go unharvested in Minnesota each year.

An estimated 210 million pounds of those three crops go unharvested in Minnesota each year, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group that was based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Millions more are picked but never sold to retailers or consumers.

"The potential is substantial," said Tony Mans, director of food sourcing for Second Harvest Heartland food bank. "We're looking for a new stream, and this is the next big thing."

Mans said hunger relief groups need a new stream of food, because traditional sources of donations are declining. For example, they're getting fewer nonperishable donations from big food manufacturers.

"You know, manufacturers are really tightening up their inventories and doing a better job of controlling waste, as they should," he said. "As the economy has tightened, they've really changed their systems and become much more efficient. That's made it harder for us and our food shelves to help serve our clients."

Mans hopes agricultural surplus will help fill the gap. One of the biggest challenges is logistics: figuring out how to get perishable donations quickly.

To do that, Second Harvest has refrigerated trucks that crisscross much of southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin. The trucks pick up produce as soon as a farmer calls.

When Second Harvest receives more produce than it needs, it sends the extra to food banks outside Minnesota. In return, it receives other produce, perhaps tomatoes in January.

"A lot of it would go to waste, because after today, we pick everything all over again."

The biggest volume of unused produce could come from large-scale food processors -- the companies that can and freeze vegetables. Hunger relief groups are talking with some of those companies and hope to bring in high-volume donations, Mans said.

Second Harvest is also reaching out to vegetable farmers like Gary Pahl in Apple Valley. As Pahl recently walked through fields of sweet corn and cucumbers, he stopped to check the crops, then conferred with his brother to make a game plan for the day's harvest.

"We'll just pick whatever cukes we get, cut our cabbage so we don't have to mess around with that tomorrow," Pahl said.

It's an art to get the vegetables ready just in time to sell. Pahl plants sweet corn in batches, so it will ripen bit by bit through the summer. But sometimes, the weather doesn't cooperate -- then there's too much corn at once, and he can't get a good price for it. That leads to something he hates to do.

"Put a disc to it, till it back into the ground," Pahl said. "That's the only thing you can do. If nobody wants it, you know, what else are you going to do with it?"

That changed last year, when he had truckloads of corn still in the fields and called Second Harvest. The food bank paid him a small fee to help cover the cost of harvest. He said he still lost money, but it was nice to see the corn go to someone in need.

"You have a lot of input costs in there; you got a lot of sweat equity," he said. "To see it go to waste, it's disheartening."

In the end, the produce winds up at a food shelf.

At Neighborhood House in St. Paul, Sarah Yang, basic needs manager for Neighborhood House, is thrilled to be able to offer food shelf users a healthy option. It can be hard for low-income families to afford healthy food, she said.

"We're trying really hard not to have Ramen noodles," she said. "We're trying to get more nutritious food in here."

The food shelf offers vegetables from the farmers market, potatoes and sweet corn from farmers' fields. But Yang has a problem: not enough refrigerator space.

The food shelf is trying to expand. Yang wants a walk-in cooler that would allow the food shelf to store more vegetables and keep them fresh longer.

"It's hugely important," she said. "Produce is huge."

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