Hunger calls, innovative community responds
I heard about a program going on here in the Driftless in the summer. A nonprofit was taking volunteers to farms to glean leftover produce in the fields after the primary harvest. They’d give that secondary harvest to local food pantries. I thought that was really a cool idea, so I reached out to them and we co-wrote a grant for people with varying abilities to be a paid staff for that program.
Our crew loved it, and I loved it. I had been living in Viroqua for 15 years, working in the town, but I never really got out to the country. I had never picked vegetables on a farm, or really experienced the beauty of the farmland in our area. So it was a special experience for all of us.
I found out at the end of the summer that the nonprofit that ran the farm program didn’t have the ability to run it anymore. They wanted someone else to take it over. I started to think about getting more involved but I knew I was going to need some help.”
-Daniel, Community Hunger Solutions, Viroqua, WI
Gary: “I grew up here. My family had a small dairy farm, and one of my uncles had a larger dairy farm just down the road. I grew up working on these farms and in the agricultural community and was very tied to it. But as a high school kid, and I think this is pretty typical if you grow up in a small town, I thought, ‘The first thing I want to do is get out of here after I graduate.’
I was gone for 20-some years. Some family health issues brought me back to the area. One of my parents had passed and I just kind of decided, ‘You know, I love this area. Why don't I just stay here and settle?’
When I came back I began to meet some of the local growers. These young people were so inspiring to me because they were embracing the hard work, the long hours, the very, very physical work, out in the elements and the heat of the day. I thought, "Gee, if I could turn back the clock 40 years, I could've seen myself being a farmer.”
I knew Daniel because we worked together on some other community projects. He approached me and said “What do you think about you and I taking over this farm project for the local food pantries." It kind of triggered something in me - that maybe I could have that life without turning back the clock. The way that I can be connected to farming and to providing food could be through a project like this. So we had a meeting with all the partners and together we decided, yeah. Let’s go for it."
-Gary, Community Hunger Solutions, Viroqua WI
Daniel: "I come from a big family and waste was just something that you didn't do. ‘The Clean Your Plate Club’, that kind of thing. I just hate to throw things away. Yesterday, my wife said, "We're throwing this cabbage away." She put it in the compost, but when she left I took it back out. I cut it open and ate it... just had to peel off some layers and it was all good again.
It’s been particularly hard for me to learn just how much produce goes to waste on local farms. Sometimes there’s not enough commercial demand for a particular vegetable, or sometimes it’s just because it has a blemish or is a different shape. The waste can be up to 40%! It’s especially distressing when we have such big problems with food insecurity in our country.
Our program with the ‘seconds’ gleaning was going well, and then during the second summer of our program, Gary and I saw an opportunity to grow what we were doing even bigger. "
Gary: "We were working together with our crew on an Amish farm when we discovered a giant bin of squash. We asked the farmer what he was going to do with it, and he said, "Well, we're just going to throw it out in the field and let it rot, because there's nobody that will buy it."
We asked him if we could give it to the food pantry along with what our crew was gathering, and he said yes."
Daniel: "That was the moment a lightbulb went on for us. There was always a lot more food left out in the field, way more than we could harvest ourselves once or twice a week through our program. We thought, "Well, what if we can secure a lot more food by buying even more ‘seconds’ directly from the farmers?”
Gary: "We started talking to the growers about it. There are a lot of Amish farmers that grow for Organic Valley, and one of those farmers started connecting us with the rest of them. He said, "Well, you might want to talk to this person or that person. I can set you up." I would get in his truck early in the morning and we’d spend the whole day driving around the region and meeting Amish farmers.
Going from farm to farm we learned that the growers in our region really wanted to help. So we essentially created this ‘seconds’ market, which directly pays the farmers, so it helps our local growers, and it also helps with our food insecurity challenges."
Daniel: "Everything started to move really fast. Sue Noble at the Vernon Economic Development Association was connected to the Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, and they offered to purchase the ‘seconds’ from our growers. Sue also helped write grants and invited us to be a part of the Food Enterprise Center, so growers could start dropping off their produce at this building, and we could have a place to store it and prepare it for distribution to the food bank and food pantries. In just those last few months of 2013, we ended up giving about 30,000 pounds of produce to pantries just from farmers bringing it directly to us.
1 out of every 5 people in America, they say, is food insecure. Meaning that at sometime during the year they don't have enough to eat. About a quarter of those people use food pantries.
So after that lightbulb moment, we expanded to source organic produce from over 50 farms. Now we’re donating it well beyond our local area, in 18 counties across Wisconsin."
Gary: "One of the challenges that we have been working on is how to encourage people at the food pantries to take advantage of the fresh produce. In the beginning, people were very cautious about it. They're used to the same old packaged, processed food that they used to get. Now, we're bringing fresh organic vegetables, and part of the fear is that they don't know what to do with them.
It makes sense. There are vegetables being grown here that Daniel and I hadn't ever seen. When we started this program, I had never eaten kale! I had never seen a celeriac."
Daniel: "I’d never had spaghetti squash."
Gary: "Yeah, spaghetti squash is another one that I had never eaten. So we've been learning too. But over a period of 3 years, we’re seeing more and more of a positive response.
One of the food pantries that we work with is Living Faith Food Pantry. Rose who works there puts a really big focus on the produce. They have it going all the way down their whole hallway and it looks as beautiful as you would see in a supermarket. She was telling us how this one guy came in and he said, "What's this?" and she said, "Well, that's bok choy," and he said, "Well, what do you do with it," and she said, "Look, here's a recipe for stir fry. There's some rice over there, and here's some chicken. This is how you prepare it.” He came back the very next week and said, "Where's the bok choy?" He loved it. He was just like us, eating spaghetti squash the first time... like "Wow, this is really good."
Daniel: "I keep thinking that we can grow this idea to other communities. Like what we’ve got here is a model for other areas. If you have farms, and you have a place to serve as a food hub, and you have food pantries, you can do this."
Gary: "Well, this guy's a visionary. He wants to grow every year and I’m like, ‘But we’re these 2 old guys!’ We start every year from scratch, writing grants to support it. It’s a challenge, knowing whether we're going to be able to fund what we're projecting. We're looking to hire some staff this year, but we don't want to just hire employees. What we want to do is bring young people on that can pick up this vision and the mission and say it's more than a job. Maybe at some time, it'll become its own 501c3 or LLC or whatever it wants to be. We want it to be sustainable, this vision."
Daniel: "Community. Community has been the key to the success of this project, and maybe to its sustainability. From big companies or organizations for our primary funding, to the small family farms, food pantries, Sue Noble who helps us write grants, the Food Enterprise Center community, our crews who work with us on the farms gleaning, and our other volunteers. There are so many different ways that this community has come together to help us do this work. We hope it continues. And maybe... grows."