When most people work with their schools or companies to collect food donations for the Food Bank, they think about nonperishable items. Canned food, rice, beans, or boxes of cereal might be overflowing in collection bins from the generosity of people in our community to help those in need. The Food Bank also knows the importance of access to fresh produce and food that help keep people healthy and launched our Fresh Produce Program more than 20 years ago to help meet that need.
Nicky Ulrich serves as the Food Bank’s Agriculture Resource Coordinator to foster relationships with local farmers and ultimately increase the amount of fresh fruits and veggies coming into the Food Bank, and out to families.
A System Designed to Help Farmers
When farmers harvest their crops, a majority can be sold to grocers, food distribution companies, or at farmers’ markets. However, there is usually a portion of fresh produce that is considered unsellable. These fresh fruits and vegetables are perfectly edible and nutritious but either their size, shape, or coloring would make them less likely to be purchased by a customer.
“Thanks to our Fresh Produce Program, fresh and edible produce is prevented from getting tilled into the ground or sent to the landfills and can instead go into the hands of people that need it!” says Nicky.
One of the Food Bank’s generous farmer partners is Bill Hering from Hering Farms in Faison, NC. He has been donating through the Fresh Produce Program for over six years! He first heard about the program at the farmer’s market, when he realized other farmers were donating their unsellable produce. His crops of butternut & spaghetti squash, watermelons, potatoes, and cabbage quickly went to help people in North Carolina dealing with food insecurity.
Benefits to Farmers
Nicky’s job is to strengthen and build relationships in the farming community and show them how easy they can donate their edible but not sellable produce. “Through partnerships with farms, we help the farmers find an easy way to recoup costs from food that is not sellable,” Nicky shared. “We can provide local produce to people with food insecurity.”
When farmers donate these unsellable food items through the Fresh Produce Program, they receive a tax deduction and to recoup some of the costs lost from produce that can’t be sold at a market. The Food Bank makes this donation process as simple as possible for farmers. When the food arrives at one of the Food Bank’s six branches it is weighed to give farmers an accurate receipt for their donation. The Food Bank’s vast network of community volunteers then gets to work sorting the large pallets of fresh fruits and vegetables into family-sized bags. After bags are sorted, they are distributed to partner agencies across our 34 counties and into the hands of people who need it.
Bill shared with Nicky that he was considering getting out of the veggie business commercially but has stayed to support the Food Bank. About 75% of his crops go to support our friends and neighbors in need. Bill now focuses on selling to just one or two vendors who will select produce that is picture perfect. Bill sends the remainder of the food to the Fresh Produce Program and into the hands of people who need it most. “People in my community need this food, and I still want to farm,” Bill explained. “So, there is more benefit to what I am doing now compared to what I was doing 10 years ago.”
Why Fresh Produce Is So Important
Food Bank Nutrition Education Manager Sara Clement RDN, LD knows how important it is for people suffering with food insecurity to have access to fresh foods. “Fruits and vegetables provide a wide range of valuable nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and potassium. You would probably notice very few effects in the short-term if you didn’t have them. Effects of not including fruits and vegetables in the long-term might include risks for a few vitamin deficiencies, such as Vitamin C, which is provided solely by certain fruits and vegetables,” says Sara.
A diet rich in colorful foods are great sources of vitamins, minerals, and natural substances that may help protect from chronic diseases and health issues. Fresh fruits and nutrient rich vegetables can help protect against stroke, prevent certain types of cancer, and decrease risk of heart disease. Eating more fruits and vegetables also helps to maintain healthy weight and lowers the risk of eye and digestive issues.
Children living with food insecurity have even greater risk of long term complications. If their bodies do not receive the nutrients they need, it can have a lasting effect on their physical development as well as their success in schools. Healthy foods help keep bellies full during the school day helping them focus and maintain better concentration. Having access to whole foods through the Food Bank helps ensure North Carolina students are successful, happy, and healthy. Thankfully, 80% of the Food Bank’s partner agencies distribute fresh produce provided by North Carolina farmers through the Fresh Produce Program.
Future of the Fresh Produce Program
The Food Bank hopes to expand its reach to farmers across the state to participate in the Fresh Produce Program. The program currently works with dozens of farmers across North Carolina, but we would like to expand the program to include different size farms as well as expand the outreach to include meat and dairy farms. Many of the 800 Partner Agencies that the Food Bank works with have access to refrigeration and temperature controlled environments, to keep foods fresh and safe. These partner agencies can become another resource to make donations easier for farmers across the state.
Nicky loves the job she does and says it is rewarding to see the impact it makes for farmers as well as people dealing with food insecurity. “One of the most important goals of my work is that I get to follow that food around from beginning to end. It is amazing to follow the line from farmer to citizens and view the impact it has,” says Nicky.
Thankfully, North Carolina is full of farmers like Bill Hering, who can help make the expansion of the Fresh Produce Program possible.
You can help
The more produce we can receive and distribute, the better! But even donated produce requires trucking and cool storage in order to reach neighbors in need. Your gift today can ensure we have the infrastructure resources we need to accept and provide the most produce we possibly can to neighbors in need!