Sometime Tuesday morning, 3-year-old Kayleen Yoder went out to the Lincoln County fields with her grandfather to pick cabbage and onions. That's the produce auction house's rules. You pick the day it's brought to market so it is the freshest it can be.
And just before 1 p.m. Tuesday, dressed in a fresh blue smock and black stockings, wearing an untied white bonnet, the little girl stood in granddaddy's buckboard and saw commerce as she knows it: You help unload what you picked, hear a lot of men talking really fast, and there's homemade ice cream when you're done.
From her vantage point on the buggy, she could smell peaches and speak to horses and witness a boy in suspenders ride a hand-lift like a scooter.
But she could also witness a 21st-century experiment in will, grace and pragmatism.
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In less than 24 hours, a goodly portion of God's bounty spread like Thanksgiving on this auction floor will be in the hands of Kentuckians who are hungry.
The growers will have been paid a fair price for their produce. The at-risk families will not be so much as walked through a check-out line.
It's a pilot project called Farms to Food Banks. If it works, the project will have fed children Kentucky-grown food, fought obesity, taught nutrition and kept Kentucky family farms going all in one stroke.
Idea has worked before
The idea: Take food that might have been plowed under or wasted, and put it onto the plates of those who can't afford to pay the relatively high price of fresh produce.
It's not an original idea. It has worked in three other states — Michigan, Ohio and Texas. In fact, in its eight years at work in Ohio, food banks have bought $2.6 million in produce from Ohio farms and put it on the tables of needy Ohioans.
That got the folks at Lexington's God's Pantry Food Bank to thinking: We could do this.
One of only five massive warehouse-style food banks in Kentucky, God's Pantry Food Bank's own internal study, done in 2006, showed that it was already reaching one in every 10 people in each of the 50 counties it has been charged with serving. Any pilot study would be limited to serving those central and eastern Kentucky counties.
So Marian Guinn, chief executive officer, and Kristin Ingwell Goode, development coordinator, contacted three county produce markets, one each in Lincoln, Bath and Scott counties. All they needed was money to buy the food.
Agriculture Development Councils in six Kentucky counties and the state's development board came through; so did a community service block grant and a grant from Feeding America. All totaled: $125,000.
Then, says Ingwell Goode, they asked buyers in the Bath and Lincoln county markets to estimate the volume of produce left over or for which there was no market. She was staggered by the amount of food that was not being eaten: "The potential was something like $400,000 worth of produce," she says.
And that was in just two counties.
Spurred on, the board at God's Pantry Food Bank figured out base prices they were willing to pay to acquire that produce and apportioned the dollars — the Scott County component has yet to be added — and began buying on June 29.
Guinn says the Farms to Food Banks pilot program hopes to be successful enough to acquire funding for a statewide effort next year.
It need not be perfect
It's Tuesday afternoon market chaos. David Schrock is taking his turn as auctioneer. Half bushels of cucumbers are up for bids. Lloyd, David's dad, has decided to enter the fray on behalf of his client, God's Pantry Food Bank. He has surveyed what farmer John Isaacs has brought to market and decided they are worthy.
The elder Schrock knows that God's Pantry Food Bank's top price for this quantity of cucumbers is $5. Elder Schrock pays $2 a half-bushel.
Isaacs is pleased by the sale. "It's a good program," he says of the Farms to Food Banks initiative. "Important, too."
Then, he adds, "I don't eat cucumbers, but I know a lot of people do."
Schrock says he talked to his buyers and sellers a lot about the Farms to Food Banks program. He is adamant that all the produce is good quality and that all would be sold elsewhere. "It would not be plowed under. If it were bad, we'd turn it away." But, it need not be perfect to be good to eat.
A lot of blackberries, banana peppers, Tenderette beans, pineapple heirloom tomatoes and patty pan squash go by without a bid from Schrock. Too expensive. Too exotic.
His directions are to buy things most people know how to cook and will eat.
In the past, says Ingwell Goode, because of the lack of variety in some urban groceries, some clients have said they are not familiar with how to peel carrots or shuck corn. Once, Schrock bought cue-ball squash for the program and it had to be labeled before even the agencies would pick it up and put it in their baskets.
They were hungry
On paper, Lincoln County's delivery will be $2,653.75 worth of fresh food. On the scale, it's 4,501 pounds. On the truck, due any minute, it's bushels of Blue Lake green beans and white half-runners. It is Jumbo tomatoes, both shockingly yellow and brick red. It's mud-splashed bell peppers, green cabbage, white onions and big fat zucchini. It is ripe cantaloupe and long cucumbers. It is bags upon bags of ears of sweet corn.
It is like heaven on a produce pallet on the loading ramp on an early Wednesday morning at God's Pantry Food Bank at Jaggie Fox Way. And that's just what's come from Lincoln County. (In the five weeks that the Farms to Food Banks program has been in operation, they've spent $17,349 buying 37,387 pounds of fresh-off-the-farm food.)
Early on, the food arrives, transported by the markets to God's Pantry Food Bank. Now, any one of 380 agencies that the food bank serves may come and claim the produce. The food bank is expecting only about 16 agencies to show.
Anthony and Linda Lowery drive their donated truck and arrive just after 9. Without much ado, they begin to load what they know they'll need for those already in line back in Richmond. Anthony is particularly keen on the yellow tomatoes.
His God's Outreach food pantry served 1,200 families in July alone. That's 60,000 pounds of food a month, on average. Most of it comes from God's Pantry Food Bank, though some is donated by local farms and local grocers. They will be back here twice more this week to refill their small storefront food distribution center.
Linda's parents owned and worked in grocery stores when she was little. She says she never could understand why she couldn't "just give the food away." She said it would break her heart when someone would steal food. "You don't understand the desperation," she says. "I would wonder why we'd call the police. They weren't criminals, they were hungry."
Getting what they need
The line is out the door on Richmond's Geri Lane. Anthony Lowery makes sure his 60 or 70 volunteers always smile and treat clients well.
"I grew up dirt poor. My dad was a sharecropper. In those days, people thought it was their job to make you feel bad about your circumstances," he says.
He greets most by name. The elderly are ushered forward.
On this day, each family gets three plastic bags of packaged foods, a whole frozen chicken, handful upon handful of green beans, three nice tomatoes, four ears of corn, three onions, a cantaloupe, maybe a cucumber, maybe a green pepper, depending, and a small bag of russet potatoes. They also get "have a blessed day" as they exit from the effortlessly kind Lowerys.
Ashley Smith, clearly pregnant, is here with her grandmother. Both women are picking up food. Ashley is holding tight to her round-faced 6-month old, Kayleigh.
"When the food stamps run out, they restock me," says the 21-year-old mother of two. She says she's also picking up for her mom.
She says she's ever so thankful for the fresh tomatoes.
"I've been craving tomatoes," Smith says, smiling, as she buckles the baby in, correctly, in her car seat.
Linda Lowery, who has helped carry the groceries to the Smiths' car, hears this. She leaves only to return with a bag full of red tomatoes. Linda remembers when she craved strawberry ice cream during a pregnancy a long time ago.
If Ashley Smith wants tomatoes, she should have them.