It’s March, and the Minnesota fields are quiet, snow disappearing to uncover the remains of a harvest marred by floods. Farmers are hustling elsewhere to get ahead of the coming year and make it better than the last. Years like this — when prices are down and bankruptcies are up — remind farm families of the leanest of years past. Despite challenging times, farmers are becoming increasingly important players in the fight against local hunger.
Hollandale farmer Jon Van Erkel has donated 1 million pounds of onions to local food shelves in the past few years. Many like him find a path to help in the Farm to Food Shelf program, a collaboration between Second Harvest Heartland and the State of Minnesota.
Excess produce is vital to food shelves
The initiative, now in its sixth year, offers local farmers the opportunity to donate excess produce to area food shelves throughout the harvest season. By offsetting a portion of harvesting, packaging and transportation costs, Farm to Food Shelf makes it easy for Minnesota growers to donate surplus crops that would otherwise go unharvested or be discarded. These donations are vital to helping Second Harvest Heartland – a Minnesota-based food bank – feed half a million people each year, providing the nutritious produce options that are in high demand with our neighbors experiencing food insecurity.
Van Erkel Farm, which has been operating for nearly 100 years, is now run by Jon, a fourth-generation farmer. “If I didn’t participate, I’d have to dispose of the onions myself, which would be labor-intensive, time-consuming and costly. Farm to Food Shelf makes my life easier and it feels good to give back.”
“The onions we donate are perfect but there is no market for them,” Van Erkel explains. “The problem is that consumers are very particular about the produce they purchase. If you have a product that is slightly off, such as an onion that is smaller than average, grocery stores won’t buy it because they know it won’t sell.”
A significant impact
Each year in Minnesota, 250 million pounds of edible crops are planted but not harvested or harvested but not sold, creating an agricultural surplus of fresh produce going to waste. When distributed to food shelves, this “ag surplus” makes a significant impact in relieving hunger while also reducing health care and education costs. The Farm to Food Shelf program, supported by funding from the state of Minnesota, currently helps 55 Minnesota farmers donate crops to feed people in need.
Over the past five years, generous farmers have donated 30 million pounds of produce to Second Harvest Heartland to distribute to food shelves and meal programs in 87 Minnesota counties.
These farmers live and work in areas of concentrated hunger. In fact, people living in Greater Minnesota make up 50 percent of our state’s people living with hunger. Small communities getting smaller means many grocers closing their doors, turning heartland towns into food deserts, where nutritious food is hard to come by. Almost 40 percent of the people we serve outside the metro area are forced to travel a significant distance to get to the closest food shelf.Scal
Jon Van Erkel and farmers like him understand the business challenges involved in moving food from fields to dinner plates. They know that fresh produce can be found going to waste just a few miles away from hungry kids. The dilemma they see so starkly plays out, on a broader scale, across the heartland. There’s plenty of food to go around. Ensuring it gets from where’s it’s excess to where it’s needed is the work in front of us.
Scaling up the fight to end hunger
Second Harvest Heartland’s new hunger-relief center has bigger coolers, newer trucks and much more space for storing food; it will help us increase the volume and variety of fresh, healthy foods we can collect from farmers and distribute to food shelves. It will make it possible to expand our operations and scale up our fight to end hunger with a goal of providing 125 million meals by 2025.
The new facility creates an opportunity to up our game, working to move more food from farms to food shelves and then tables. If we maintain and grow our farm connections, supported by the Department of Agriculture and the people of Minnesota, we’ll be ready to keep the veggies coming and rescue even more farm surplus, like meat. Like the hard-working farmers we partner with, we believe it’s our sacred duty to feed families experiencing hunger in our community and throughout the heartland.
Thierry Ibri is the chief operation and program officer at Second Harvest Heartland.
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