As Minnesota's 'corn rescue' grows, tons of produce reach food banks nationwide

Bob Branham helps load corn into bags.
Bob Branham helps load corn into bags at the Cargill grain facility in Savage, Minn., on Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. Branham and other organizers of the corn rescue project hope it will be replicated in other parts of the country.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

More than a million pounds of Minnesota sweet corn is expected to feed hungry people across the nation this fall, the result of an effort by hunger relief groups and food companies to capture corn that would otherwise go to waste.

Known as "corn rescue," the two-year-old program is led by Hunger-Free Minnesota, with donations and expertise from some of the biggest names in agriculture, including Cargill, General Mills, Seneca, Birds Eye, and Supervalu. Some of it gets distributed in Minnesota, but it's also trucked as far away as New York City.

One of the places that logistical challenge takes shape is a Cargill grain facility in Savage, where it was barely dawn recently when a tractor-trailer pulled up, dumped a mountain of sweet corn fresh from a field near Owatonna onto a concrete slab, and Maria Crownhart sized things up.

"About 25 tons," she said, eyeing the pile. "It's taller than us, yep. It's about four acres of corn."

Crownhart works in southern Minnesota for Birds Eye, which this year found itself with more corn than it could process because of the way the weather affected its staggered planting season. Rather than plowing it back into the ground a fertilizer or silage, the corn is "rescued."

"They were kind enough to pick it for us, put it in a truck and bring it here," said Tony Mans, the director of food sourcing at Second Harvest Heartland food bank, as he and others loaded the excess corn into gigantic bags. Mans estimates that about 50 million pounds of sweet corn go unharvested in Minnesota each year. And there's high demand for nutritious food like this.

"There's a lot of talk in the news about people in poverty having high obesity rates. So food shelves are asking us more and more for fresh produce," he said.

Loading corn onto trucks
Ian West loads bags of corn onto a truck at the Cargill grain facility in Savage, Minn., on Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. Organizers of the project sent a truckload of Monday's corn to a food bank in Nashville, Tenn. and another to Houston, Texas.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

"This year we've got corn going to Houston, to New York City, we sent some to Oregon. So really all across the country," he said.

Getting the corn to facilities like the one in Savage is just the start of the challenge, according to Bob Branham, who directs the new produce capture institute at Second Harvest. It's a race against time. Corn comes out of the field hot if it's harvested on a hot day. And if it's hot, it spoils fast. Last year, the corn rescue didn't always beat the clock.

"Even in those few short days it takes to get from, say, here to Phoenix, the corn can start to turn and go bad in that very short period of time," he said. "We sent a load last year, and when it was received at the food bank it was not at a quality that could be distributed further to food shelves. So that food bank ended up turning around and donating it to animal feed. That outcome was exactly what we wanted to avoid."

The solution: Cool the corn using a cold-water shower system designed with the help of Vanan Murugesan, a mechanical engineer working as a consultant for Second Harvest. After the corn bags were loaded onto a truck, he climbed aboard, assembled a simple system of pipes and garden-style sprinklers, and turned on the water.

Building the corn cooling system
Vanan Murugesan readies the corn cooling system at the Cargill grain facility in Savage, Minn., on Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. Murugesan helped design the system, which cools sweet corn by giving it a cold shower. The process significantly extends the shelf life of the corn.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

"There's nothing really special about it," he said, but it extends the corn's shelf life by cooling it to about 50 degrees -- and may help other programs around the country with similar challenges.

"The goal was not just to chill corn," he said. "The goal was not to find the most awesome solution to cool corn. Our goal was to find a solution that's replicable."

"Go to Wisconsin and work on cucumbers," said Second Harvest's Bob Branham. "Go to Georgia and work on sweet potatoes. At some point down the road, we'll have a very efficient food banking system that allows us to do all of this rescue across the country at the same time, not getting a million pounds of corn, but maybe getting a hundred million pounds of different kinds of produce for people with food insecurity."

A study by the Boston Consulting Group estimates that in Minnesota alone, 210 million pounds of sweet corn, potatoes, and peas go unharvested every year.


Julie Siple reports on hunger and related issues for Minnesota Public Radio News. MPR is a partner in the Hunger-Free Minnesota project, which helps fund her reporting.