By Katy Budge
A recent letter from the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County starkly framed their daunting task: helping some 200 non-profit programs “serve 40,000 people, almost 15 percent of our neighbors struggling to survive, and half of them are seniors or children.”
The programs the Food Bank works with can be as small as a neighborhood church or as large scale as the Salvation Army, but essentially, the need dictates distributing over 4 million pounds of food annually. Obviously, with economic woes hitting both personal and corporate wallets, that job is getting harder and harder. While there are more and more mouths to feed, there are also far fewer donations of money and shelf stable product from major food companies, “and we have new pressures from secondary markets such as dollar stores,” explained Carl Hansen, the Food Bank’s executive director.
Those discount venues are providing a new avenue for companies to sell food, albeit at a reduced price, and much of it is product that might otherwise been made available to food banks and the like. While “it’s good that lower income people have an inexpensive place to buy food,” admitted Hansen, “now they’re also competing with people that just want to save money.”
One very small silver lining is that these new market venues are draining away a lot of processed food, so the Food Bank is by necessity replacing it “with an overall higher quality of food than we used to have,” said Hansen. One way the gap is being filled is with “Fresh Rescue,” a program that literally rescues food from local groceries that would otherwise be wasted – baked goods or dairy that are nearing their sell-by date, for example – and some stores such as Albertson’s are donating on a daily basis.
The Food Bank is also affiliated with Feeding America™ (formerly America’s Second Harvest), a nationwide umbrella organization that works on efforts such as grant funding, securing corporate donations, distributing government funding, acting as a political advocate, etc. In addition, the San Luis Obispo coalition is a member of the California Association of Food Banks, a consortium that does similar activities on a statewide level, but is also able to purchase food in volume – both fresh produce and shelf stable products – at less than market prices and ship it to member food banks throughout the state via a centralized “hub and spoke” system.
That method of distribution gets the job done, but it begs a lot of questions. Does the issue of food miles belong in a discussion about food banks? At what point do carbon emissions take a back seat to feeding hungry mouths? Why buy citrus in Fresno and ship it to San Diego via Sacramento? Shouldn’t an agriculturally rich county like San Luis Obispo be able to feed its own residents? Can we get locally grown food directly to local people that need it?
Enter friends and fellow artists Frank Zika and Liz Maruska. As the story goes, Zika called Maruska one day to ask him where she could donate some boxes of fruit from some prolific neighborhood trees. Their search led them to the Food Bank, and – in what Zika described as “one of those synchronistic things,” they decided “why stop at boxes, why not go for tons?” said Maruska. “We’re in this agricultural county, no one should go hungry.”
Add to that the statistic that about 30 percent of all food grown “is wasted for whatever reason,” noted Maruska. Whether it doesn’t meet market standards, doesn’t ripen at the right time, goes bad on the way to market, or just doesn’t get picked, that food never gets near a mouth.
Zika and Maruska were curious whether there was a way to get those kinds of locally grown excess or “culled” crops into the Food Bank system. Not only would food miles be greatly reduced, as would shipping costs, “people would be getting fresh produce that hasn’t traveled all over the state,” said Maruska. After meeting with Hansen and getting the green light, “we decided to just make it our project, where we go out to the farmers, develop the details, and put the deal together,” she said. “We just want to find a way to make it work for growers, because if it works for them, it will work for the Food Bank.”
Maruska already knew Todd Talley, chief financial officer of Talley Farms in Arroyo Grande, so that was the first grower the pair contacted. Those discussions with Talley were invaluable, said Zika, because “he could show us the methodology and give us an education about their (farming) world.” Another key player was Jim Lewis, manager of the Food Bank’s Oceano warehouse, who was able to address and allay any concerns about food handling and storage.
As it turned out, the concept was indeed feasible, in large part because of the infrastructure already in place at the Food Bank. The produce didn’t need to be specially packaged, just put into large agricultural bins for volunteers to sort through and divvy up later. The Food Bank also already had refrigerated trucks with lift gates, pallet jacks, insured drivers, 24-hour pickup notice, etc., plus the proper cold storage facilities for either fresh produce or frozen value-added items such as apple juice.
Talley Farms got on board immediately, “even though it takes some time out of our schedule, we’re happy to do it. It’s good to give back,” said Talley. Because his family’s own business has also been affected by recent economic events, “we’ve made an effort to let our employees know exactly what we’re doing and why we’re participating, and they’ve really responded positively.”
To date, Zika and Maruska have already rounded up several more local growers to participate in this nascent program, including Avila Valley Barn, Bounty of the Valley, and Clark Valley Farm. While tax-deductible donations of produce are always welcome, “we’ve gained an appreciation of the fact that often farmers can’t afford to do that because their own profit margins are so thin,” said Zika. However, the Food Bank does have “Farm to Table” funding available to pay for culled produce, as in produce that isn’t suitable to receive top dollar, produce that’s often part of that 30 percent of food that never gets near a mouth. Typically, the Food Bank’s price is not more than 10 cents per pound depending on the commodity, said Hansen. Yes, that’s a far cry from premium market price, which is easily several times that, but it’s at least something towards the farmers’ bottom line.
It remains to be seen just how much this locally driven program can help the Food Bank, but Zika optimistically points to the case of “one grower who dropped 125 tons of crop last year – that’s just one grower. They’re certainly not going to be getting rich off this program, but they want to help, and they certainly don’t want to just plow under their beautiful crops.”
Granted, to even put a dent in the 4 million pounds of food needed annually by the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, it’s going to take a lot of energy on the part of folks like Zika and Maruska, as well as a lot of growers willing to participate. But, you know the old adage: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
How can you help?
Go to www.slofoodbank.org for a list of opportunities, such as volunteering or donating, or call the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County at 238-4664.
Are you a farmer or do you know of a farmer that would be interested in this program? Call the Food Bank at 238-4664 to set up a meeting with Frank Zika and/or Liz Maruska.
Katy Budge is a freelance food and wine writer based on California’s Central Coast. She has written enthusiastically about various aspects of the local food community for many years, and also “explores the culture of cuisine” on her website,