‘Farmers ... hate to see anything go to waste.’ Program gets ‘ugly produce’ to food banks.

Farms to Food Banks program at God’s Pantry

God's Pantry CEO Michael Halligan discusses the Farms to Food Banks program which helps distribute locally grown food throughout the commonwealth.
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God's Pantry CEO Michael Halligan discusses the Farms to Food Banks program which helps distribute locally grown food throughout the commonwealth.

Over 30 million plates of food and eight years later, an agricultural initiative in Kentucky is looking ambitiously forward.

Farms to Food Banks, an arm of the non-profit Feeding Kentucky, has partnered with Kentucky farmers to provide fresh produce for those at risk of hunger since 2011.

Since its inception, Farms to Food Banks has seen a slow but steady increase in its budget. This year, the program has received half a million dollars in support from the Department of Agriculture. Other financial support comes from organizations like the Lift a Life foundation and private individuals.

The design is simple: Farms to Food Banks covers the cost of harvest for cosmetically imperfect and overstock produce. That produce is then donated and distributed to a variety of processors and food banks across the Commonwealth.

“Farmers tell us they hate to see anything go to waste. The program helps ensure farmers are able to donate rather than plow under their unmarketable produce,” Feeding Kentucky Programs Coordinator Sarah Vaughn said. “And the families we serve are always thrilled to receive great local produce.”

Last year, 349 farmers from 64 different counties participated in Farms to Food Banks, according to the organization’s impact report. Over 3 million pounds of produce were donated, and the average participating farmer received over 1.5 thousand dollars in compensation.

Vaughn said they’re hoping to match or top last year’s performance by recruiting new farmers, particularly those who live in counties they’ve yet to partner with. She said that includes many Eastern Kentucky counties, like Boyd, Harlan and Pike County.

Farms to Food Banks accepts Grade 1 and Grade 2 produce. The difference, according to Vaughn, is cosmetic.

“(Grade 1 produce is) pristine - it’s the red apple with no blemishes on it that you see in the store,” Vaughn said. “(Grade 2 produce is) what can’t be sold in Walmart or other retail locations. It’s what we call ‘ugly produce.’ It might be a little bit too big, or a little bit misshapen, or a little bit too small.”

“There’s not something wrong with the quality or taste of the item, but the way it looks,” Vaughn said of Grade 2 produce. “Lots of times that’s what (farmers) bring home to feed their own family, and they still have extra.”

Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm is one such farmer with a little “extra.” Stone has participated in Farms to Food Banks since the program’s start in 2011. In that time, Stone has donated 26,473 pounds of fresh produce, according to Vaughn.

Stone said that his donated produce is always “a good, quality product.” Not all of Stone’s donations are even Grade 2 - much of it is surplus Grade 1 produce.

“We’re glad to participate,” Stone said. “It’s a great organization. No self-respecting farmer wants to see crop go to waste.”

In 2019, Farms to Food Banks organizers are trying something new. Several pilot projects under the “Appalachian expansion project” look to expand the impact the program can have over the colder months.

With new interest and new funding, Farms to Food Banks organizers are testing novel techniques for 2019. “The Appalachian expansion project,” for example, looks to increase the program’s impact in the colder months, when fresh produce and funding become scarce.

Through a partnership with several food processors, such as the Lexington-based non-profit FoodChain, Farms to Food Banks is prolonging the shelf life of donated produce. Participating processors are dicing, cubing and freezing produce, then shipping it back to food banks with a recipe card attached.

Vaughn said this initiative will “extend the season” for families that receive produce.

“All they’ll have to do is thaw it out and cook it, and they’ll have a recipe to use, if they choose to,” Vaughn said.

Many processors will focus on a specific crop. For FoodChain, that crop is butternut squash.

FoodChain’s executive director and founder, Rebecca Self, said the partnership with Farms to Food Banks is a new, exciting opportunity for the non-profit, which has processed over 10,000 pounds of squash to date.

Self said that butternut squash production for the season would start “whenever the weather cooperates.” Her best estimate for that time is early September.

Until then, Farms to Food Banks will be working with farms across the Commonwealth to provide fresh, seasonal produce — including broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, okra and zucchini — to thousands of Kentuckians at risk of hunger.