From The Organic Report, Fall 2011
By Jennifer Rose
Food pantries have long played an important role in society, feeding those who, for whatever reason, cannot afford enough food to feed themselves. These institutions have only gained in importance in recent years, as economic growth has slowed and unemployment has risen.
In the face of widespread budget cuts and growing demand for services from food banks, it may come as a surprise, then, to learn that fresh, organic produce is making its way into several food banks, and into the hands of populations in need. At the Oregon Food Bank (OFB) in Portland, OR, this is due in part to the generosity of Organically Grown Company (OGC), the largest wholesaler of organic produce in the Pacific Northwest and an OTA member. Since 2001, the company has donated 2,608,997 pounds of produce to OFB and Food for Lane County, a regional division of the OFB network. And in the past year alone, OGC has donated 250,000 pounds of organic produce to OFB.
In the words of OGC’s CEO Josh Hinerfeld, the decision to donate is “a no-brainer.” As he explains, “Consumers and retailers want the freshest and most attractive produce, which is understandable, but that results in a lot of unsalable product. As a distributor, we’re left with a choice of either composting or donating this food. If we have perfectly good apples that have superficial blemishes, ripe bananas or other short shelf-life produce items, donating to the food bank, for us, is the better option. It gives us a home for produce that we cannot sell, and it enables people in need to have access to fresh, healthy, organic food. ”
Thanks to the work of Bob Reffelt and a group of fellow parishioners at the United Methodist Church (UMC) in Vernon, NJ, food pantry patrons in northern New Jersey are benefitting from the introduction of organic foods as well. As a retiree, Reffelt found himself with “some extra time on his hands,” so he set out to create a small, organic garden that could be used to help feed the 60-100 families who visit the church’s food pantry each month.
“We’ve had a food pantry [at the church] for a long time, but we’ve relied mostly on canned, non-perishable food. I thought it would be great if we could go one step further, and serve our families with fresh, locally grown organic food,” he explains.
Turning his thoughts into actions, Reffelt reached out to Jamie Rickey, owner of Rickey & Sons Organic Farm in Vernon, in hopes of using some of Rickey’s land for the organic garden. Rickey agreed, and in March 2011, Reffelt and several UMC congregation members got to work establishing a small, 40' by 60' plot a mile and a half from the church. Together, the group tilled the soil, brought in mulch and compost, built an 8-foot fence to protect the garden from deer, and began planting crops, including string beans, tomatoes, lettuce, squash, Swiss chard, and beets.
Maintaining the garden has been challenging, both due to heavy rain and an inconsistent supply of volunteers. Nonetheless, Reffelt feels that it is a definite asset to the church’s food pantry. “The people who come [to the food pantry] really appreciate having fresh food. The fact that it is organic is an added bonus.”
Fresh, organic food is also making its way into the hand of patrons of the Saddleback Church food pantry in San Juan Capistrano, CA, due in large measure to the vision and hard work of congregation member Gene Archibek. A descendant of four generations of farmers, Archibek was well -versed in agriculture. But as an executive in a construction firm, he didn’t spend much time on the farm. In the spring of 2010, things changed, and he began volunteering on ranch land acquired by the church. While heading to a storage area on the property, Archibek came across a piece of farm equipment that mirrored one owned by his grandfather. At that moment, Archibek says, he knew what he had to do. “Crazy as it may sound, everything became clear to me. I needed to help the church build a farm.”
Shortly thereafter, Archibek applied for a federal seed grant, which he immediately received. He then put together a plan to develop a 24,000-square-foot farm on Saddleback Church’s Rancho Capistrano campus. Top on the list of Archibek’s priorities: making the farm an organic one. “Ever since our pastor Rick Warren came out with The Daniel Plan (a year-long fitness plan) last year, organic has been a huge priority for Saddleback Church. We have all committed to eating healthier, and organic is a big part of that process. ”
What has evolved from Archibek’s organic farm plan, in his words, “is nothing short of amazing.”
“People have come out of the woodwork to help with this project,” he notes, adding that he’s received donations of everything from tools, organic compost, and a large walk-in refrigerator to store harvested produce to an irrigation system valued at over $10,000. “And the offers to help just keep coming” from Saddleback Church goers as well as the surrounding community.
Such contributions have enabled the Saddleback organic farm to produce over 10,000 pounds of organic produce and help feed 3,500 visitors (775 families) per month at the Saddleback Church food pantry. They have also set the stage for a 36,000-foot expansion and a doubling of the farm’s production next year.
“It’s been a fantastic accomplishment,” Archibek observes. “Like many food pantries, we historically served a lot of processed foods. But we always wanted to be able to offer something fresh and healthy. Now, we’re doing just that.”
Given the success that OFB, UMC, and Saddleback Church have had in integrating organic food into their food pantry offerings, it is easy to wonder whether we are likely to see fresh, organic food on more food pantry shelves in the months to come. According to Hinerfeld, the answer to that question is not clear-cut.
“Right now, food pantries, and the people who use them, are scrambling for any food they can get. They are not discriminating between organic and conventional.” Also, there is not always clear recognition about the origin of the food that is being served. “People at food pantries may be unaware that the food they are eating is organic,” Hinerfeld notes. “And if they are unaware, they are unlikely to demand more of it.”
At the same time, various structural barriers exist to making fresh food –either organic or conventional—more widely available at food pantries. As Hinerfeld observes, growers have limited motivation to pay for labor to pick and transport produce that cannot readily be sold. Additionally, when growers do dedicate resources for the production and distribution of produce for food pantries, the lack of refrigeration at the food pantries often presents a problem.
“Many food pantries lack the refrigeration facilities necessary to handle perishable items. So, even if fresh food is available, they [food pantries] don’t always have an effective means of storing it,” Hinerfeld says.
Nonetheless, stories like the ones shared here provide hope that organic may, one day, be standard food pantry fare.
By the Numbers:
Facts about food insecurity*
• In 2010, 48.8 million Americans lived in food insecure households: 32.6 million adults and 16.2 million children.
• In 2010, 14.5 percent of households (17.2 million households) were food insecure.
• Food insecurity exists in every county in America.
• In 2010, 4.8 percent of all U.S. households (5.6 million households) accessed emergency food from a food pantry one or more times.
• In 2010, 59.2 percent of food-insecure households participated in at least one of the three major Federal food assistance programs –Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamp Program), The National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
• Among members of Feeding America, 74 percent of pantries, 65 percent of kitchens, and 54 percent of shelters reported that there had been an increase since 2006 in the number of clients who come to their emergency food program sites.
*From Feeding America, a hunger relief charity that includes a network of 200 food banks across the United States (http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-facts/hunger-and-poverty-statistics.aspx).
Learn about the Oregon Food Bank's Learning Gardens.